The Coachability and Fakability of Personality-Based Selection Tests Used for Police Selection

By Miller, Corey E.; Barrett, Gerald V. | Public Personnel Management, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

The Coachability and Fakability of Personality-Based Selection Tests Used for Police Selection


Miller, Corey E., Barrett, Gerald V., Public Personnel Management


The use of personality and biodata measures in safety force personnel selection is increasing due to demands to reduce adverse hiring, placement, and promotion decisions. The U.S. Department of Justice advocates the use of personality tests for this very reason. The selection of safety forces such as police is often contentious and is therefore one of the most likely instances in which the use of personality tests would be contemplated.

Personality testing for safety force personnel decision making raises at least two concerns, however. These are the coachability of personality tests, and the low predictive value personality measures have regarding police performance. (1) In a 2003 Public Personnel Management article, Barrett and colleagues highlighted practical issues that arise in the use of personality tests in police selection by exploring in depth exploration the meta-analytic finding that conscientiousness predicts job performance, focusing only on studies that had relevant samples, job performance criteria, and tests that correlated performance with conscientiousness. (2) They found it would be incorrect to assume that conscientiousness would be a useful benchmark for all police selection situations because the personality trait was not a significant predictor of performance. In other words, while research results showing that conscientiousness predicts police performance could be useful to guide theory, those results have limited practical application.

Although this conclusion might seem surprising, many researchers have suggested that meta-analytic results should not be taken at face value. Further, other researchers have specifically corroborated Barrett et al.'s finding. A meta-analysis of meta-analyses by Barrick and colleagues revealed that conscientiousness was not a significant predictor of police performance, as the lower credibility bound included zero. (3) Thus, although on average conscientiousness predicts police performance, it has not been strongly shown to do so in any one particular study. Also, the results of the studies are highly variable, and there are likely to be moderator variables that influence whether the relationship between conscientiousness and performance is significant in a particular sample. This latter observation would be true of any correlation study because the chance of finding a significant result for any given variables is less than one in three. In fact, there is almost a one in four chance of finding a negative correlation.

Moving beyond simple correlation, the study described in this article has performed to explore what might occur if some applicants received coaching on personality tests. The findings make the use of personality tests even less appealing.

Test developers who specialize in safety force testing have cautioned that safety force applicants expect to be able to prepare for important tests. (4) Even researchers who have suggested that faking is a minor or negligible problem have called for research investigating the effects of coaching. (5)

Training programs for civil service selection tests are common. (6) Workshops on "test strategy" that cost hundreds of dollars are routinely offered to applicants. In fact, developing training sessions for a test can be more lucrative than developing the test itself. In at least once instance, a consulting firms offered training seminars for a tests it had unsuccessfully bid to create and then later provided expert witnesses for a plaintiff who claimed the test was unfair. (7) There is such a demand for safety force test training that even the municipalities are offering programs such as situational interview preparation for police and fire promotion. (8) In the cited example, employees of the municipality conducted the interview prep, which consisted mainly of offering tips such as get plenty of rest, think before you speak (a period of silence is acceptable), make eye contact, and look your best. …

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