You need to go to school for how long to do what??

I think there is a misconception among the public as to what a psychologist actually is or does. More than once, I’ve been asked why I need to go to school for almost a decade in order to sit on a couch and ask clients how they feel. Other than the blanket assumption that every body that studies psychology wants to go into counseling, many assume that it’s easy to assess patients or clients. Specifically, I think what they lack is an understanding of psychometrics — i.e., that branch of psychology that is involved with designing, administering, and interpreting tests that measure psychological variables. After taking this class, I myself have a more nuanced understanding of all the work goes into psychological assessments. But what taught me even more about psychological assessment was my personal experience with research. For the past year, I’ve had the opportunity to be part of a lab in the Psychology department where with the guidance of my supervisors I carried out a research study. During this time, I learned a great deal about my research topic as well as all the hard work that goes into psychological assessments. Sadly, I also learned about all that could go wrong and require you to exclude the data you spent a significant amount of time collecting…

For instance, even administering a simple paper-pencil test proved to be more difficult than initially anticipated. First step was picking the right test. Does this questionnaire actually measure what I want it to measure? Is it the best choice? After having carefully picked out the appropriate questionnaire, I assumed it would be simple to administer the test — give it to the participant and ask them to fill it out. Simple enough…but I found that this wasn’t always the case. The questionnaire I chose typically required 25–30 minutes to complete. And so when one of my participants took much longer than that, I asked if they had any comments or questions. And they revealed that they found the testing room to be cold and so they couldn’t focus on the questionnaire. I was surprised to discover that something as unrelated as the ambient temperature was interfering with my administration of this simple paper-pencil test! Another time, my participant took significantly less time to complete the questionnaire. Assuming they were a fast reader, I didn’t think much of it until the time came to score their answers…turned out they had skipped 2 pages of questions! I learned my lesson — I now check to make sure they answered everything before letting them leave.

Another issue that I became all too familiar with was the computer program running of my test crashing. The first time it happened my instincts told me to run and hide!! Not only had the program crashed, but it refused to reopen. But I couldn’t hide…it wouldn’t look very professional in front of my participant. So instead I ran. I ran right out of the testing room and sought the guidance of one of the more experienced grad students in the lab. His solution was very simple — ask the participant to write out thier responses on a piece of paper instead of typing it up on a computer. My momentary panic had prevented me from seeing that a very, very, very simple solution would solve my problem. This is an example how the state of mind of the researcher could have impacted the result of the study (or in this case, would have prevented me from collecting any data at all).

Finally, another component of my study involved experience sampling — over the course of a week, I would be sending 45 texts messaged assessing the content of my participant’s thoughts. And in order to actually get them to agree to this part of the experiment, I was crucial for me to form a rapport with them very early on (basically an hour after first meeting them, I would be asking them for their phone number!). And being able to form a rapport with my participants meant that I couldn’t let anything going on in my life interfere with my mood or attitude when I was with my participants. Even if I had just had a horrible argument with my friend, I would have to put that aside and make sure I didn’t appear angry or upset when interacting with my participant. Or if my participant was being especially difficult and kept stepping out of the testing room for one reason or another, I could not let myself get irritated with them.

And so over the course of this last year, I learned that there are a number experimenter-related factors that can interfere with psychological assessments and that need to be recognized and addressed. First, experimenters have to be comfortable administering their test and also be prepared to deal with any problem that may come up during their assessment (and problems will inevitably come up!). Further, as experimenters, we are often asking participants to invest a great deal of their time in our experimenters or asking them to reveal personal or intimate details about their lives. And so it’s important that as researchers, we always maintain a professional and agreeable attitude towards our participants.

All in all, not only did I learn a great deal about psychological testing during the past year, I also learned a lot about myself. Notably, I learned that despite all the challenges involved, I truly do enjoy conducting psychological research. Here is hoping I get the opportunity to do much more of it in the future!

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