Printer Friendly

True lies: the dishonesty of honesty tests.

"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. To drive home its point, the flyers cited such alarming statistics as: "More than 26 percent of workers in manufacturing facilities, 32 percent of hospital personnel and nearly 42 percent of retail workers admitted to being dishonest on the job." (The emphasis on the word admitted is intentional for, as I will argue later, to acknowledge theft in these circumstances may well be more honest than to disavow it.) The flyer then invoked federal law-enforcement authority to make its point: "The FBI estimates that businesses lose between $40 billion to $200 billion a year because of internal loss." These numbers and scare tactics are blatant attempts to sell the industry's tool rather than to inform prospective users of its scientific merits and possible limitations.

Furthermore, and more outlandishly, a test manual

I reviewed some years ago cites an (appalling) honesty test as giving employers "a great feeling when . . . [they] know they've hired an honest, dependable employee . . . [with their] Paper and Pencil Honesty test . . . developed by a professional . . . M.A., M.S.D.D., A.C.P., C.P.P. . . . noted criminologist and polygraph expert. They are better than sleuths hired to do the same job." Again, this laughable characterization is an irresponsible promotion that smacks of greed, not honesty.

Should prospective users still remain unconvinced of the honesty test's validity, they can find comfort in these testimonials, printed in the manual, of satisfied users at TeleCheck ("the employees we have hired since . . . {using this test} are fantastic"), Radio Shack ("I anticipate acquiring a minimum total of 10,000 each over a 12-month period"), and numerous other prominent food and sporting-goods chains around the country. The test manual goes on to claim that the test "is psychologically validated . . . does not violate EEOC hiring standards . . . [has the approval of] a staff psychologist from Brigham Young University . . . and gives you . . . complete satisfaction." (Incidentally, I reviewed this test in the. Tenth Mental Measurements Yearbook - psychological testing's holy writ - and received several APTP letters threatening legal action if I did not apologize in print and retract my review. Fortunately, the University of Illinois' legal counselor suggested that the APTP quit harassing one of its professors or else. Since I don't speak legalese, I understand neither the APTP's threats nor the university's response to them.)

This unbelievable hodgepodge of unscientific silliness continues to be disseminated in the test manuals of several main, stream integrity-testing firms and has led the APA task force even absent its ousted critic - to state that "promotional claims for honesty tests, as perhaps for most other procedures for pre-employment screening, vary from the circumspect to the fraudulent. We have seen a number of promotional brochures that are so clearly excessive and overblown as to make a test expert cringe in embarrassment."

Procedural Problems. In addition to its preposterous claims, the integrity industry's procedural tactics are equally suspect. For instance, good psychological practice always dictates that psychologists (not their clerical surrogates) communicate psychological test results to examinees. Nonetheless, it is common practice in the industry to delegate this to others with no training in the interpretation of tests. Therefore, "hire" or "do not hire" (or "fire" or "do not fire") decisions are often rendered by untrained workers. Worse yet, these are often made "blindly," the equivalent of diagnosing someone without seeing them, which is an ethical "no-no" in psychological testing. (Automated personality-test interpretations also fall into this category but are properly the topic of another article.)

The Scientific Bases of Honesty Tests

But these promotional and procedural concerns, though serious, are dwarfed by the scientific concerns. Honesty testing has three main scientific problems: (1) the nonspecificity of the "honesty" or "integrity" construct; (2) the flawed logic of assessing honesty; and (3) unacceptably high false-positive and false-negative error rates. These are interrelated difficulties, as we shall see.

Honesty's Nonspecificity. Exactly what are we testing for when we measure "honesty" or "integrity"? Upon this point, confusion reigns. Sometimes a test's stated purpose is to predict theft (or an inclination to steal) from the workplace; at other times, it claims to measure productivity, dependability, capacity for violence, or recreational drug use during or after work; and at still other times it is presumably a measure of reliability or even marital success. The APA task force's confusion in this regard is worth noting: "Because these tests are so heterogeneous in focus and content . . . it is not possible to assess their . . . validity."

Even if these various purposes were to be limited to the tests' broad intent to assess honesty and integrity, however - and assuming that the industry can vaguely define these con, structs - there still remains the problem of the situation, specificity of honesty. That is, going back to research in the 1920s and 1930s, as well as in more recent findings in the last 40 years, ample evidence has shown the lack of cross-situational consistency in traits such as honesty, cheating, punctuality, conformity, and attitude toward authority, to name just a few of these elusive constructs. Thus, one might cheat in filling out income-tax forms, for instance, yet not steal company stationery for personal use or stamps, pens, paper, paper-clips, or other office equipment. Or one might conscientiously observe the precepts of church and state but may defraud business associates or other innocents. It seems safe to say, therefore, that human beings are complex entities who defy easy defining.

The Logic of Honesty Testing. Whereas polygraphic lie detection rests on the flawed premise that emotionality discloses lying (a premise refuted by me and others in articles appearing in Nature, Harvard Business Review, and American Psychologist), honesty testing assumes that admitting to past sins predicts sinfulness. Such logic rests on the flawed assumption that honest admissions of past transgressions imply deception and hence untrustworthiness.

The areas of integrity these tests assess include thoughts about theft ("Have you considered stealing from your parent, siblings, or company?"), knowledge of theft ("Do you know anyone who has stolen anything?"), and perceptions about the extent and frequency of theft in our society ("What percent of the population steals more than $10 in a month?"). These tests also elicit admission of theft ("Have you ever stolen more than $5 worth of anything?"), forgery ("Have you ever falsely signed a friend's name on an official document?"), and even rationalizations about theft or forgery (for example, "someone who treats others poorly encourages dishonesty").

In addition, examinees are invited to express their punitiveness toward dishonest people ("Should a long-service, trusted cashier be fired and imprisoned if one day he is caught stealing a small sum of money?"), and opinions about a variety of other misdeeds, including attitudes toward violent people, drug use, and cheating, to name just a few.

Most questionnaires suggest truthfulness is the best policy in responding to these questions and instruct examinees that there are no "right" or "wrong" answers. Although these assurances are an improvement over the industry's earlier caveat ("Be truthful, your answers are subject to verification by polygraphic examination"), both instructions are a lie. Truthful admissions to any of these items can disqualify individuals from obtaining gainful employment requiring responsibility and can label and stigmatize them for life as untrustworthy. And of course, the test does count right and wrong answers, with great emphasis upon the latter.

The rationale for this form of questioning is as simple as it is simplistic. To wit: someone who admits to theft or dishonesty, or has contemplated theft or dishonesty, or has knowledge of same without disclosing the transgressor, or has a lenient attitude toward scofflaws is dishonest and irresponsible. This is quite an inferential leap, using a logic that is as mind-boggling as it is paradoxical. For instance, admissions to any of these questions may very well be a sign of honesty, not its opposite. To assume such persons to be deceptive, in other words, is a crude form of logic and inaccurate besides, as the following case demonstrates.

In his superb book A Tremor in the Blood: Uses and Abuses of the Lie Detector, University of Minnesota psychologist David T. Lykken relates the tale of a nun, Sister Terressa, who was denied employment with B. Dalton Booksellers after having "failed" an honesty test. She had been rejected for a part-time job (the pay was to go to her Order) with the Minneapolis branch of the store because - or so she was told - she had the lowest score on an honesty test ever seen.

As it turns out, she had made a serious error of testing judgment, although one not uncommon for straight-arrow types in our society. She told the truth - that is, she admitted to past misbehaviors and displayed a streak of Christian charity toward those who transgress, thus not conforming to the integrity industry's standards of honesty (not published normative data, by any means) and its expected punitive stance toward those who err. Ironically, therefore, the industry, by its inflexible position, inadvertently encourages people to lie on its tests for, as it turns out, only "liars" can pass them. (Sister Terressa later appeared before the Minnesota Supreme Court with her case, which resulted in the outlawing of many devices that purport to detect lying.)

The Scientific Soundness of Honesty Tests. An issue that refuses to go away is honesty testing's lack of supporting or validating scientific evidence. As in the case of their various lie.detection predecessors, honesty tests generate mainly two types of errors: false positives and false negatives. False positives are honest people falsely labeled dishonest on the basis of test results, as in the case of Sister Terressa; false negatives are dishonest people labeled honest due to their "passing" test results.

Both types of error point to the test's lack of validity, an issue that strikes to the very core of a test's scientific and psychometric excellence. It informs us of a test's reliability in measuring its purported concept - in this case, honesty or integrity. It is precisely because of these errors, in particular the first kind - false positives - that polygraphic interrogation was rendered unlawful in most settings. The same is true of honesty testing. It is therefore a useless (and expensive) exercise that always favors, to use a gambling casino analogy, "the house."

Some facts and figures in this regard may be illuminating. Honesty testing's false-positive error rates - that is, the rate of incorrectly identifying honest persons as dishonest - range between an average of 73 percent and 97 percent, according to the APA's and OTA's 1990 reports (thus underperforming the polygraph's average error rate of about 50 percent, as calculated by myself and others who have conducted scientific reviews of the field). The instances of false-negative errors - that is, dishonest people who "pass" the test - are no better, hovering around 58 percent, according to the same reviews. These false-negative misclassifications far exceed the polygraph's deplorable 33 percent false-negative performance. (Evidently, some people find it difficult to "fail" an honesty test because their test-taking attitude seems to be that they see no evil, commit no evil, and are properly punitive toward those who do, thus precisely conforming to the integrity industry's expectations and criteria of honesty.)

Yet another problem with the validity of honesty tests is that much of the evidence cited in their behalf is based on their high correlations with polygraphs. The reasoning of honesty testers seems to be that, if two flawed techniques are highly correlated with one another, then the accuracy of both is enhanced. This form of logic, often cynically (perhaps naively) advocated in the industry, is no doubt related to the mathematical truism that the multiplication or division of negatives yields positives.

The APA task force's conclusion regarding these tests' validity is also noteworthy: "For some published measures, almost no evidence at all is available beyond assurances that evidence exists. For a few measures, extensive research has been completed. Even in the latter cases, however, test publishers have relied on the cloak of proprietary interests to withhold information concerning the development and scoring of the tests, along with other psychometric information." In other words, the industry's attitude is: "Don't bother to investigate us; our product is private property, and we will protect it as such." While this may be defensible in the marketplace, it is hardly acceptable for an alleged scientific tool that may be an invasion of privacy and is capable of doing considerable personal injury.

What can be done?

Having come full circle to the question raised at the beginning of this article - "Is the honesty-testing industry honest?" (surely it is not) - I offer now the following eight recommendations:

1. If testing is to be used, provide more leniency in the scoring so that the industry's "one-strike-and-you're-out" mentality is attenuated somewhat.

2. Given that honesty tests foster many more false-positive and false-negative errors than polygraphic lie detection, the industry might consider adjusting the norms (if any) so that the false-positive errors are reduced substantially. This would require psychometric adjustments such as collecting empirical validating data in the general population, thus not limiting the data analysis just to those who may have been "caught" cheating, lying, or misbehaving.

3. Furthermore, research conducted primarily by honesty-test publishers needs to be monitored carefully by the psychological community so as to preclude the biased research and irresponsible promotional practices of rogue (and APTP) operations. This can be accomplished by having APA (or the U.S. government and state courts) declare all "honesty testing" as being under its purview. This was carried out successfully in the case of polygraphic lie detection and, to a large extent, "cleaned up" (or eliminated) both rogue operations and the biased research and advertising of the industry.

4. Likewise, to ensure enforcement of the foregoing, the psychological professions must step in forcefully and call for scientific studies of this new generation of lie detectors, as well as hold them accountable, both legally and ethically.

5. Potential or actual users of these tests should evaluate whether they are truly better or worse off with or without their use. This may require careful record-keeping and impartial outside statistical consultation designed to ascertain the cost-benefit trade-offs.

6. During the interim period of confusion and sparse available solid research and validating data, users may want to resort to several time-honored nontest methods that are perhaps more valuable than honesty testing. For example, they might want to conduct careful background checks of examinees, including verifying resume data and prior performance records.

7. Prospective and current users might also consider consulting security and auditing firms that specialize in installing and implementing standard procedures to preclude dishonest practices.

8. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, prospective test users might want to consider another alternative: to be as forthright in their dealings with people as possible and, in the employment or educational setting, to reward honesty and punish (or withhold rewards for) dishonesty. The use of honesty tests clearly reverses this practice and therefore is the ultimate exercise of dishonesty. Besides, there is much inherent honesty in folks, and these tests, among their many other faults, sow mistrust and breach our civil liberties.

Benjamin Kleinmuntz is a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago and has disputed the claims and uses of polygraphs in Nature, Harvard Business Review, American Psychologist, the Journal of the American Medical Association, and, ironically (due to a misreading by an editor), in Polygraph. His research in this area was supported by the National Science Foundation, and he is currently researching the uses and misuses of honesty tests.
COPYRIGHT 1995 American Humanist Association
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1995, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Kleinmuntz, benjamin
Publication:The Humanist
Date:Jul 1, 1995
Previous Article:Thou shalt not play God.
Next Article:The legacy of "Star Trek."

Related Articles
Lie society; the cold war's over. But its legacy of lying remains.
And that's the truth.
Teens follow their own moral compasses when it comes to deciding ethical issues.
Deception detection: psychologists try to learn how to spot a liar.
Honesty at heart of recovery.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2021 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |