Last week we discussed the basics of ipsative testing. This week my blog will look at why ipsative testing has been used for selection and the real driver of ipsative testing: marketing.

Why do people recommend ipsative tools for selection if they are not recommended for that purpose?

There are two reasons that people recommend ipsative measures for selection. The first is a misbelief that they are less resistant to faking and therefore produce more valid results. The second is that marketing is fundamentally about having a point of difference. This ultimately means that companies selling assessments will present any number of different assessment solutions so long as they can create a story around it.


As is often the case, I quote from work by Paul Barrett in response to issues of faking: “The widespread use of ipsative measurement came about as a response to rater bias exhibited in questionnaire personnel ratings. Travers (1951) credits Paul Horst with first proposing the idea of forced-choice format to counter ‘leniency’ and other errors in rating. The forced-choice method involves the presentation of items that have been matched for preference value (e.g. social desirability) yet discriminate differentially on a set criterion, such as leadership quality for a specific task (Gordon, 1951). However, two important assumptions underlie this approach. Firstly, all the choices must be as high in apparent validity as each other, and secondly, the ratees will, on average, ascribe equal status to the irrelevant qualities (Guildford, 1954)”.

Hammond and Barrett then go on to show that the ipsative tools rather than getting around social desirability have in build and systematic problems of social desirability in responding. People will still attempt to respond in ways in which they are motivated to. However with ipsative testing because the scales are interdependent it is much harder to detect social desirability and differentiate it from situational difference. Thus, ipsative testing is not so much more difficult to fake but rather is more difficult to detect making its use in selection more not less problematic.


The key reason that ipsative testing has been promoted by a few assessment companies mainly around marketing purposes. Personality testing has far less validity than other forms of testing, such as cognitive ability, despite its common use. With the plethora of assessment companies, the need for market differentiation increases. Couple this with issues around faking in personality testing and you have a clear market driver for ipsative testing.

The key is understanding that this market driver runs counter to the supporting evidence for ipsative testing. Thus, companies who flaunt ipsative testing clearly show a commitment not to psychometric rigor but gaining market share. One cannot have things another way as to promote the use of ipsative testing requires a deliberate ignorance of the independent supporting theory and science related to ipsative assessment.

A more pressing question is how the market place ever got conned into the belief that ipsative testing is indeed valid for selection. The answer lies with whom the control of the message resided and who is the paradigm setting agency. As competition has increased, counter views and ‘independent best-practice’ have been brought to bear in countries like New Zealand where ipsative testing for selection is now rare. The question still remains as to why even the New Zealand market was not told about the issue related to ipsative measurement before and why (in my experience) were so many convinced that the ‘best-practice’ was the other way around (i.e. ipsative for selection and normative for development)?

The resolution is of course professional ethics in that if we as psychologists know there is no issue with normative tools for between person comparisons than our use of ipsative testing will be minimised. As professionals we must therefore not fall folly to marketing diatribe but as always base our decisions on independent science and theory.