Ipsative Test Design

Trying to predict how a person is going to behave, or react, or perform is not an easy task. Organizational Psychologists have spent the better part of the last century researching, creating and rigorously testing assessments that are robust enough to predict when and why a person will be successful or not in a given job.

Ipsative vs. Normative

Psychometric instruments are usually clubbed into 2 categories – Normative (aka Likert rating scale type) or Ipsative (aka rank order type). Normative tests compare us with other people, ipsative tests compare us with ourselves. These two approaches allow you to do different things.

For example, if Reema takes a normative 'Test of Accounting Skills' the results might say she scored better than 50% of a comparison group e.g. successful accountants. Therefore, her result will be different depending on who you compare her with.

An Ipsative test will compare Reema with herself. The test forces her to choose what she prefers or does better out of the alternatives offered. So an ipsative test of accounting skills might ask Reema if she preferred finding ways of avoiding tax or preparing accurate accounts. You could also compare Reema's preferences or strengths now with those two years ago.

Faking – Is it possible in Psychometric Assessments?

This is all very well, but what about candidates giving the answers they think you want in an assessment? Obviously, when candidates are applying for a job, they're motivated to show their best side. This also means that they're likely to be tempted to give fake or distorted responses on an assessment, such as telling you they’re more reliable than they really are. This intentional distortion of personality assessment answers is commonly known as 'Faking' or 'Gaming'.

Understandably, faking creates problems for those using these results for making high stakes decisions like candidate selection for a job or choosing someone to be promoted to a leadership role. This is an issue that psychologists have pondered for many years, and there's a whole body of research dedicated to it. Today designers of tests have a solution to counteract this tendency to a significant degree. It is called Forced-Choice or Ipsative assessment design.

In these Ipsative questionnaires, items measuring different attributes are presented in blocks, and participants have to rank-order the items within each block. The blocks are designed so that all statements are equally desirable. For example, choice a) indicates the person is outgoing and lively while b) indicates the person is hardworking. Thus, by asking a candidate to endorse one of the two options, the item forces out, per se, the more dominant inclinations and traits of the candidate. Since the candidate cannot make him/herself look good on both the statements, the faking tendency is significantly reduced.

Challenges of Ipsative Design – Constructing Questionnaires

While it has the huge advantage of being fake-resistant, constructing ipsative questionnaires can be challenging. For one, if scored with traditional methodology, these instruments produce results such that all individuals have a common total test score and it is impossible to achieve all high or all low scale scores on the test. Obtaining reliability/validity estimates for the ipsative test is also trickier statistically.

Therefore, scoring frameworks for such tests must be designed by experts. A professionally designed test like the Psyft Personality Assessment (PPA) is scored adequately and mitigates much of the problems of ipsative data.

Final Word

It is often debated which is a better assessment design – the traditional rating scale 'Normative' design or the 'Ipsative' design. We'd say it depends on the purpose of assessment. If the goal is self-evaluation, then a simple normative personality test can be sufficient. However, if a company is looking to use a test for high stakes decisions like hiring or promotions, a sophisticated ipsative personality test would be a better choice.


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