January 17, 2010

Augumenting MCAT with a Big 5 personality test

The NYTimes describes a study of 600 Belgian college freshman who entered a seven year medical training program (i.e., combining what in the U.S. would be undergrad pre-med and medical school). The article focuses on the additional knowledge gained by giving a Big Five personality test on top of a cognitive test:

At the start of the study, the researchers administered a standardized personality test and assessed each student for five different dimensions of personality — extraversion, neuroticism, openness, agreeableness and conscientiousness. They then followed the students through their schooling, taking note of the students’ grades, performance and attrition rates.

The investigators found that the results of the personality test had a striking correlation with the students’ performance. Neuroticism, or an individual’s likelihood of becoming emotionally upset, was a constant predictor of a student’s poor academic performance and even attrition. Being conscientious, on the other hand, was a particularly important predictor of success throughout medical school.

In the U.S. setting, conscientiousness is likely measured well by undergraduate GPA.

And the importance of openness and agreeableness increased over time, though neither did as significantly as extraversion. Extraverts invariably struggled early on but ended up excelling as their training entailed less time in the classroom and more time with patients.

“The noncognitive, personality domain is an untapped area for medical school admissions,” said Deniz S. Ones, a professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota and one of the authors of the study. “We typically address it in a more haphazard way than we do cognitive ability, relying on recommendations, essays and either structured or unstructured interviews. We need to close the loop on all of this.”

Some schools have tried to use a quantitative rating system to evaluate applicant essays and letters of recommendation, but the results remain inconsistent. “Even with these attempts to make the process more sophisticated, there is no standardization,” Dr. Ones said. “Some references might emphasize conscientiousness, and some interviewers might focus on extraversion. That nonstandardization has costs in terms of making wrong decisions based on personality characteristics.”

By using standardized assessments of personality, a medical school admissions committee can get a better sense of how a candidate stands relative to others. “If I know someone is not just stress-prone, but stress-prone at the 95th percentile rather than the 65th,” Dr. Ones said, “I would have to ask myself if that person could handle the stress of medicine.”

This all makes sense. The danger, however, always seems to be that somebody who had a high IQ and a low honesty level might be able to figure out what answers are wanted on the Big 5 personality test and just tell them what they want to hear. That's an advantage for IQ tests -- if you can figure out the answers the IQ testers want to hear, they you have a high IQ.

While standardized tests like the MCAT and the SAT have been criticized for putting certain population groups at a disadvantage, the particular personality test used in this study has been shown to work consistently across different cultures and backgrounds. “This test shows virtually none or very tiny differences between different ethnic or minority groups,” Dr. Ones noted. Because of this reliability, the test is a potentially invaluable adjunct to more traditional knowledge-based testing. “It could work as an additional predictive tool in the system,” she said.

I find this implausible. Has, for example, Woody Allen been lying to us all these years about Jews scoring higher on Neuroticism?

Keep in mind that Belgians need more than just a cognitive test because they have a single admission point for a seven year course of study, so a personality test could augment a cognitive test and high school grades. Our 3-year medical schools, however, get to use college grades, which are a lot more recent and relevant than high school grades for assessing Conscientiousness and the like.

One perennial question that personality testing could help to answer is whether hard work can make up for differences in cognitive ability. “Some of our data says yes,” Dr. Ones said. “If someone is at the 15th percentile of the cognitive test but at the 95th percentile of conscientiousness, chances are that the student is going to make it.” That student may even eventually outperform peers who have higher cognitive test scores but who are less conscientious or more neurotic and stress-prone.

Yeah, but you don't want to give the 15th percentile on the MCAT guy Dr. House's job.

This is like saying that if you score at the 95th percentile on undergrad GPA, you can make it if you score at only the 15th percentile on the MCAT. Perhaps. I would be more worried in this situation relying on a single personality test result showing extreme conscientiousness than on four years of outstanding undergraduate grades, since a personality test result showing you're a hard worker is more likely to be faked than are four years of good grades in college.

If you work hard for four years in college, then you probably are a hard worker. Still, it would be nice to have a faster selection method than that, so if the personality test boys can prove their results are reliable, more power to them. But, I'd like to see the proof, first.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer


Caleb said...

This all sounds well and good.

But you know what this is all about in contemporary America.

When you have a managerial state comprised of diversicrats, technocracy, and PC ideology, this is exactly the kind of stuff you're going to have.

Equality is the absolute objective and all kinds of technocratic means will be brought to bear to meet this objective. That means setting up a Byzantine personality testing apparatus administered by various diversicrats, professionals, "experts," etc.

Anonymous said...

The current US college admission system augments SAT (cognitive test) with other personality factors measured in way that is harder (but not impossible) to game than a multiple choice questionnaire. For example, conscientiousness affects GPA (as Steve noted), extraversion and leadership ability can be assessed through activities, letters of recommendation, etc.

For a nice discussion of how this system evolved, using the example of Harvard admissions, see Steve Hsu's summary of Karabel's The Chosen. Harvard used, at least until very recently, a 12 category typology for applicants -- "genius", "jock", "creative", etc.

Defining Merit

Anonymous said...

I appreciate they want a way around rules limiting affirmative action, perhaps even a somewhat honest one, but say a 15th percentile academically can make up for it with 95th percentile conscientiousness is a gross overreach. And I doubt such characteristics would match anyway. This might help a few minority candidates but this is not their magic bullet.

Benjamin I. Espen said...

I think the 15th percentile mentioned in the article is likely to be 15th percentile of the MCAT, not intellectual ability in general.

Shawn said...


You must have been following my comments over at Half Sigma, perhaps? I will most my comment that I made over there here shortly.

Basically, if someone is a little smarter than your average nurse, and is interested in medicine but is not intelligent enough to get into US medical schools, Caribbean schools are a good route.

Anonymous said...

Shawn is full of it. Off-shore medical schools are a terrible idea. You end up being just one more foreign medical grad with limited access to good residencies and specialties. And probably a far worse education than what actual foreign medical grads from real countries have.

If you're not intelligent enough to get into medical school, you're not intelligent enough to be a doctor, full stop.

mark said...

For all the talk of diversity and inclusion the irony is that they want all the doctors to be exactly the same - social extraverts.

Surely the medical profession has a number of differing roles which suit differing personality types (surgeon, family doctor, research).

Neurotics are probably worried enough already without having institutions deliberately discriminate against their personalities.

Xenophon Hendrix said...

Augmenting IQ with personality tests has the potential to be useful. The problem is, other than maintaining his or her sense of integrity, a person looking for a job or an education has no current reason to answer personality tests honestly in situations where the answers count. In most cases, low neuroticism (negative emotionality) is valued over high neuroticism; extraversion is valued over introversion; conscientiousness is valued over impulsiveness; and agreeableness is valued over disagreeableness. (I suppose openness to experience is valued by intellectuals but less valued by concrete thinkers.) Everyone more or less knows these preferences, and personality tests are easy for smart people to manipulate. Someone worried about his or he future is under a lot of pressure not to admit that he or she falls on the less desirable ends of these distributions.

For example, suppose a person has an IQ of 140, does well on all of the usual standardized tests, but fills out a personality test honestly and scores in the 99th percentile on neuroticism. Might that not give an employer or educational institution considerable pause? Of course, a person with an IQ of 140 knows this.

It would be wonderful if our knowledge of psychology were advanced enough that persons could be given some tests and then steered into the careers and lifestyles that fit them best. In that case, it might be in a person's self-interest to admit to traits that are widely considered to be less desirable. Right now, our societal ability to help people find appropriate niches lags even our modest ability to measure personality.

Steve Sailer said...

The problem with using personality tests in hiring is their chance for occasional catastrophic failure in which a IQ con man games the system to appear extremely trustworthy. (I call it the Ahamad Chalabi Problem, although the U. of Chicago math Ph.D. turned swindler got his job as Heir-Apparent of Iraq not by taking a test, but the old fashioned way: by the knowing the right people in Washington.)

kudzu bob said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
kudzu bob said...

>Neurotics are probably worried enough already without having institutions deliberately discriminate against their personalities.<

Amen. I remember that after the Columbine shootings, students who didn't have many friends and who dressed oddly were singled out by boneheaded school administrators and "profilers" as potential mass murderers. The kids ended up more alienated than ever, of course.

For that matter, the poor bastards at Waco heard sermons every Saturday about how the evil government would someday send in jackbooted thugs to attack them with gas. So naturally, when the shit hit the fan, the Feds sent in jackbooted thugs who used gas, thereby confirming everything that Koresh had told them.

Anonymous said...

The problem with using personality tests in hiring is their chance for occasional catastrophic failure in which a IQ con man games the system to appear extremely trustworthy.

I had to take a test for some work training a while back that was based on the 'Big 5'. I sort of didn't care that much how I came out, but it seemed pretty trivial to answer the questions in a way that would be favorable to your situation. Basically, it was like doing a job interview - you're not going to say you are lazy and don't like your work, unless you're some kind of halfwit. Forget about high IQ, anyone even moderately crafty can get that.

Silber Streak said...

Speaking of medical schools in the Caribbean, I am pleased to be able to announce that I am accepted for admission at the Burnett International University School of Medicine and Health Sciences, on the campus of Haiti—"Medicine Without Walls," as, curiously enough, it is described on the website.

From travel brochures about Haiti, I gather this island nation is a simple but delightful tropical paradise, from whose friendly, easy-going natives I can expect a warm welcome.

Toadal said...

“Some of our data says yes,” Dr. Ones said. “If someone is at the 15th percentile of the cognitive test but at the 95th percentile of conscientiousness, chances are that the student is going to make it.”

Yes, but the day-to-day operation of a hospital today says no. The individuals Dr. Ones describes have already made it into the medical profession, they are called nurses and physicians assistants. If doctors were selected using Dr. Ones criteria, his 'Ones Doctors', would put patients at risk and these physicians would endure under great emotional and mental stress. In difficult medical situations their weaker mental skills, as reflected by their low MCAT scores, and high conscientiousness, would either make them too slow to make decisions or doggedly interfere with their more competent peers for opinions and direction.

However, the most cogent argument is that 'Ones Doctors' are simply not cost effective. They would have to be given only the most routine tasks, now done by nurses and assistants, and their lack of processing ability would make them mediocre supervisors.

Richard Hoste said...

If the elites all hate standardized tests so much, can somebody explain to me how they remain so important in determining college, law and medical school admissions? Shouldn't liberals have killed them off a long time ago? I hear nobody defending them.

Nanonymous said...

Personality testing in hiring is more of the new age bullshit. And I'd view with a lot of suspicion any results or opinions from someone whose big idea is that competence does not matter. A typical quote from one of Dr. Ones' publications:
"We agree with Hollenbeck that sound personnel selection should start with a be based on personal characteristics rather than amorphous, often ill-defined competencies. Yet, this principle applies to all selection not just executive selection".

No doubt, however, that if you press Dr. Ones, you'll find out that this idea does not really apply to the hiring for the kind of job she has.

Anonymous said...

As mentioned above, the US system of college admissions measures these personality traits, but in a much more sophisticated way that is at least somewhat hard to game. The people running Harvard are no slouches, and this is one of their core competencies.

Through the evaluations in the letters of recommendation, the interview with an alumni representative, and (often) surreptitious contact with HS guidance counselors, the admissions committee has a reasonable idea about the personality type of the student. They've also done internal studies to try to figure out what combination of characteristics will predict success in business, the professions, academia, government, the arts, etc. They want prominent Harvard men in all of these areas, and they succeed.

These guys are miles ahead of you, Steve. They figured this all out in the early to mid-20th century.

Unknown said...

Shawn & Anon who commented on him: I recently heard a Duke Univ Econ lecture about healthcare reform. One professor said 25% of all US medical residents are foreign med school graduates. So why is an off shore med school a bad idea? 25% seems to be a huge number. (Although I'm not in medicine.)

Shawn said...

Here is my response to a critic from over at Half Sigma's blog:

Kevin K.:

I REALLY wish I would have done premed and then I would have seriously considered Caribbean medical schools if I could have not gotten in to the US medical schools. (Right now I am doing an MBA so I can be a CPA. HUGE mistake. Although even at my age (27) it might make sense for me to try to go Caribbean (I seriously doubt that I am smart enough for medical schools here in the USA).

I actually UNDERESTIMATED the minimum required GPA for most of the Caribbean schools. It is actually only 2.5 for a lot of them, and for many of the schools you do NOT need to even take the MCAT. For the top three there you need a low MCAT and maybe a 2.8; they are very easy to get in. Ross is an example of one of their medical schools (Ross at least allows one to practice in 50 states I think), and yes you can get a decent residency (although it is harder) and specialize (you WANT to specialize as it doubles your salary).

The great thing about this is that as long as you can pass the USMLE you can be a doc, so it might be work getting your IQ tested before considering this route. Most Caribbean schools claim to have a 90% USMLE pass rate, even considering the fact that they are letting in lower IQ students. So the IQ ceiling must not be too high.

The great thing about this route is that most people do not even consider doing it. Most people here in the USA just think about medical school here and rule themselves out unless they have a 3.5 in premed. They do not even KNOW about Caribbean medical schools. Heck I didn't.

Being a physician in a decent specialty is essentially like winning the lottery. You make $330,000+ a year and are guaranteed to be a multimillionaire. [I will add that ~60% of Ross grades go into internal medicine or family practice which is the salary gutter (approx. $175,000 a year) relative to other areas.]

Kevin K., here are some links you may find interesting:



Bruce Charlton said...

The problem with using personality 'tests' is that they are NOT 'TESTS'.

An IQ test is a test; a personality 'test' is a self-rated questionnaire.

It is very easy to fake a personality questionnaire, very easy indeed.

Knowing that Conscientiousness is good/ wanted and Neuroticism is bad/ unwanted - plus half an hour reading Wiki http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_Five_personality_traits - would be enough preparation for anyone with the intelligence to graduate from high school.

Anonymous said...


Or, instead of going to some 3rd world island for a medical education, you could apply to DO schools, which have acceptance standards at the lower end of the MD schools (3.4-3.6 gpa, 26-28 MCAT) and besides a couple years of learning massage, you otherwise get the standard US medical education, can take the USMLE, and then go on to be a fully practicing physician in the US (and a number of other countries that recognize the DO degree).

Then you make whatever the government tells you that you're going to make and then you probably still give them at least half of that in taxes to pay for the healthcare of the patients you just treated all day. And the rest of your money can go to paying back the banks for the loans, although they won't be lowering your interest rates since they need to raise more money to pay the new bank tax.

But yeah, besides that, there are other options to get into the wonderful field of medicine.

Anonymous said...

Reply to various posts:

Most doctors are not multi-millionaires or make $330,000 a year.

There is a career-long stigma attached to having an MD from a Caribbean school (it basically says that you were way too dumb to get into an American one).

Being a D.O. is a better choice, but the medical education you get in school will be inferior to American MD ones. Sure the textbooks may be the same, but whereas the MD students get most of their clinical rotations in teaching hospitals/clinics with formalized teaching, most D.O. students have to scrounge around to find private-practice physicians to tag along with.

I'm not sure that the MD vs D.O. backgrounds matter much by the conclusion of residency and a few years of practice, but they differ not just in their premed GPA's and MCAT scores.

Truth said...

Does one need to be a genius to work as a general practitioner?

Marc B said...

"I find this implausible. Has, for example, Woody Allen been lying to us all these years about Jews scoring higher on Neuroticism?"

Perhaps Allen was merely creating an amplified pop psych Jewish internal neurotic character rather than a clinically defined extroverted neurotic that cracks and self-doubts under the slightest pressure. Remember, many of the classic nebbishy characters he portrayed were exhibiting the normally internal dialog of the neurotic for the cold and calculating WASP to laugh at and hopefully emulate as they delve into their own levels of latent Neuroticism.

Anonymous said...

The MMPI shows racial differences that correlate positively to actual measured characteristics.


Anonymous said...

"The problem with using personality 'tests' is that they are NOT 'TESTS'.

An IQ test is a test; a personality 'test' is a self-rated questionnaire.

It is very easy to fake a personality questionnaire, very easy indeed.

Knowing that Conscientiousness is good/ wanted and Neuroticism is bad/ unwanted - plus half an hour reading Wiki http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_Five_personality_traits - would be enough preparation for anyone with the intelligence to graduate from high school."

Good points regarding self rating assessments. However, tests like the MMPI can't easily be gamed and are extremely reliable and have been consistently validated. They are not self rating assessments and include questions to evaluate whether the subject is faking good or bad.

Anonymous said...

"Personality tests" do not pass the laugh test.

rob said...

I appplied to med and osteopathic med schools, and didn't get in. My situation is unusual, without going into personal details, the schools were probably right not letting me in. I rocked the MCAT (13 Verbal Reasoning, 11 Physical sci, and 12Bio Sci, S writing) which is ~95-97th percentile. I considered going to a Caribbean school, but did something else instead.

Despite my personal situation, I'm fairly sure I would have gotten into at least least one of the worst osteopathy schools if I had diversity points. When schools (or anyone) tries to crank up the diversity, they don't just weigh objective measures less for minorities, they care less about ability for everyone. If the Carribbean schools care about MCATs more, I could see their graduates doing relatively better on the USMLEs than before.

A few second-tier Ivies could clean up by weighing objective measurements more than top schools. If the tests are predictive, schools that ignore them are leaving money on the table. But Harvard must be doing something right. Washington University in St. Louis students' have higher test scores, but are not as prominent.

Anonymous said...

Selection can, and should be, but often is not, an EXTENSION of assessment into a more refined, stat-based measurement. That assessment should arise from the immediate setting/s the candidate comes from,means that it can be done without much, if any, involvement of, or $$ return to, the publishers and standardizers of personality tests and of IQ/aptitude tests. If no one were allowed to take recourse to standardized tests and measurements until all local do-it-ourselves efforts had been compleed toward assessment and THEN the standardized measures were given to fine-tune and expand upon that assessment,in most instances a fairly consistent and somewhat seamless body of information arises. Where there is "disconnect" between what seems indicated at the mere local assessment level and what arises from the scoring of the measurement extension of that level (personality and IQ tests) ,it's a "red flag" to retest/interview that examinee. Personality tests have effective "Fake/Lie detection" items in them. While not foolproof, they constitute a trip wire and a disincentive to being "fakey". There need be no false dichotomy between rating scales, letters or ehecklists of recommendation/reservation, etc. and standardized tests. Like many contemporary brides, many psychometrists--especially the vast numbers of school psychologists--are lots better at dealing with prepackaged stuff mirco ready than they are of working up their tailored dishes.
The profit margins of some leading test publishers were once desribed to me by a former staff member of one of them, with little hyperbole, as "the envy of cocaine cartels". Their copyright and control of established tests that are a kind of common currency of testing and reporting amounts to a monopoly. The market forces have been negated largely. They are enterprises often enough that are neither free nor enterprising. A lot of the data generated in research arises from out of this unperceived mercenary obsolescence and scientific anachronism.

lorlarz said...

A great research-based "Big 5" type personality assessment AND MORE : http://mynichecomputing.org/risChecklist