True Lies: The Dishonesty of Honesty Tests

Article excerpt

"Honesty is the best policy - when there is money in it."

- Mark Twain

Now that Congress has declared polygraphic lie detection unlawful in many situations, test developers are promoting new self-report paper-and-pencil "honesty" or "integrity" tests. These represent efforts by polygraph firms, sometimes in concert with the psychologists they hire, to retain their market share of the nation's integrity industry.

Recent reports indicate that about 7,500 to 10,000 businesses, schools, agencies, and other settings use these tests for hiring, firing, "periodic honesty checks," and determining "deception" or "honesty," touching about 9 million to 12 million people annually. Like their polygraphic predecessors, honesty tests are ubiquitous, showing up in employment settings, criminal investigations, and even in education.

Without disputing the need of businesses and agencies to safeguard against theft, unproductivity, sloth, fraud, or other misconduct, the following four questions about these latter-day lie detectors can be raised. First, is the integrity industry honest in its claims? Second, do honesty tests work - that is, do they pass psychometric and scientific muster according to the American Psychological Association's Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing? Third, if not, why not? And fourth, what can be done to strengthen or outlaw them?

Dishonest Promotional and Procedural Tactics

It has become apparent over the last several years that the integrity industry is less than elated about having its bread-and-butter product studied scientifically. As a result, it is guarded and deeply defensive about anyone probing into its business. I, myself, have been subjected to constant and thinly veiled threats of legal action if I continue to expose the industry's staple moneymaker. More generally, scientific evaluations have been met with staunch resistance by the integrity industry.

When the scrutiny began in 1990, for instance, due to concerns raised by the APA and the U.S. Congress' Office of Technology Assessment, the industry managed to have at least one distinguished psychological test expert (and perhaps more) removed from the APA task force on the grounds that he had voiced and written what the industry argued were "biased" accounts of honesty tests. The industry also created an in-house protectionist organization, the Association of Personnel Test Publishers, nominally established to oversee its members' activities. But its "Model Guidelines for Pre-employment Integrity Testing Programs" contained no enforcement provisions; hence (and predictably), the wolf assigned to shepherd the sheep ate them instead, meaning that the authors of the "Model Guidelines" usually looked the other way when their model was not being observed. The APTP also signaled its intention to conduct "business as usual" by vigorously defending its members' tests. This is hardly the way an honest science - in this case, psychometric science - advances, particularly given the modest evidence for its soundness. In the scientific community, the falsifiability of a hypothesis or theory, and not its marketability, is the litmus test of a theory's robustness. But as a brief examination of the industry's promotional and procedural tactics will illustrate, it is market forces, not scientific viability, that are driving honesty testing.

Promotional Tactics. Though the APA's Ethical Principles of Psychologists clearly states that psychologists are to help the public make informed judgments and choices about tests, and that psychologists must base their statements on scientifically acceptable findings and techniques with full recognition of the limits and uncertainties of such evidence, the integrity industry has constantly flouted these precepts in its promotional tactics. For instance, a recent flyer mailed to corporate executives and bank presidents in the Chicago area (and probably nationwide) brazenly encouraged the use of honesty tests as an alternative to polygraphs. …