Tests or human’s universal desire for certainty

Have we gone too far with our desire to test and quantify everything?

Some might argue that our curiosity and desire to explain and make sense of our environment is what defines us as human, and differentiates us from other primates. It is not hard to comprehend then, that the next intuitive step would be to obtain qualitative and quantitative assessments of our surroundings. Thus, the emergence of tests to measure physical attributes, and in this particular case, more abstract psychological ones, is a natural one.

I don’t believe it is an overstatement to conclude that millions of millions of test have been completed throughout time. We have developed a complex societal system, especially in the Western world, largely based on the findings derived from the performance on these tests. From newborn screenings to decide if a baby is healthy, to secondary school entrance acceptance, to deciding whether a quarrelsome teenager needs therapy, to even categorizing personality types and concluding the appropriate career direction, tests are everywhere. For most of us, we take tests results at face value, with a warming feeling that at least, a little of the uncomfortable uncertainty that we face in every day life has been dissipated by the number obtained from that test.

However, how can our dependance on tests and blind belief in them still prevail among our population, when we have found so many instances of underlying factors affecting testing performance?A couple of examples come to mind, such as an experiment that showed that approximately 4,000 more grade 12 girls in the United states taking the AP Calculus test failed it, because they were asked to mark their gender in a box prior to taking it — not because of how well they knew the material (1). What about the effect that the race of an examiner has on IQ performance test for African Americans, scoring 10 points lower when administered by a white examiner — and not due to their overall intelligence (2)? I could go on and on. So many underlying factors can influence a one time performance on a test (anxiety, priming, mood, etc.), and yet, as psychologists who should be aware of the power of the situation, we aren’t afraid to categorize and conclude important perhaps life-changing decisions of a person based on them. Most importantly, we continue to structure our lives, such as our education and health systems, or our jobs based on how we perform on a test!

Reference: http://www.dreamstime.com/stock-photos-standardized-tests-i-was-going-to-teach-them-meaning-life-wasn-t-test-image36997473

Don’t get me wrong, I understand the need for tests. I see how they have brought us closer to understanding abstract concepts, and how they have advanced our pursuit for knowledge, from the medical domain to the economic one. However, my question prevails, have we gone too far? Do we really need a test for every aspect of our life, or are we creating them and taking them to fulfill an underlying need for certainty?

And most importantly, is our continuous pursuit for certainty bringing us any closer to it, or are we testing and measuring in circles and finding evidence for that what we want to see?


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(1)Danaher, K., & Crandall, C. S. (2008). Stereotype threat in appliedsettings re-examined. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 38 ,1639 1655. doi:10.1111/j.1559–1816.2008.00362.x.

(2) Robert J. Gregory (2016). Psychological Testing, Updated 7th edition, p. 15