Psychological tests: are you for or against?

Yes, that is a polarizing way to ask the question. It certainly doesn’t leave room for nuanced biblical thought. This is better: how do we even begin to think biblically about psychological testing?

It’s a two-step process. First, you have to know something about psychological tests. Second, you bring that knowledge to Scripture and shed light on it. The first part is a little complicated. There are thousands of psychological tests out there. Some try to get at the details of intellectual functioning (e.g., the Wechsler Intelligence tests), some try to identify personality themes—good and bad—that impact our work and relationships (e.g., the MMPI*), and others are less popular tests that are deeply embedded in a particular theory of the person and are trying to apply that theory to everyday life. When we talk about psychological tests, we are usually talking about the personality tests.

Before you even get to Scripture, these tests have critiques of themselves. For example, test makers know that test questions are connected to your present circumstances, so as your circumstances change, so will your test answers. Also, none of them claim to offer omniscient insight into the human heart. They are simply organizing your answers into categories they hope will be useful. Personality tests, in general, are for fun. They have more in common with parlor games than they do with x-rays.

When you first bring your knowledge of psychological tests to Scripture, you don’t come up with very much, at least I don’t. Let’s keep thinking biblically, but an initial scan of Scripture might suggest that we don’t have to make a big deal out of personality tests. They are one way of gathering information from a person, and gathering information is a critical feature of ministry—it is tough to apply Scripture to a person we don’t know. We pursue this information in all kinds of ways. We ask friends (with permission, of course), we read personal journals that the person allows us to read, we ask all kinds of questions, we watch the person relate to others, we might even ask about high school grades or talk about a profile that came out of a personality test. All data has its biases and a hint of the dubious (I am going to put my best foot forward if you are asking me questions), but as we walk along with someone and bring together different kinds of information, we can actually know someone accurately, though never exhaustively.

At this point, Scripture really kicks in. Scripture takes our knowledge of the person and places it in the larger context of allegiances and kingdoms. No psychological test will do that for you.

Do we actually use tests at CCEF? No, not that I know of. But that’s not necessarily because of a definitive biblical principle. We opt to gain an understanding of someone from talking with them. Most experienced counselors can fairly quickly gather the useful data that might come from personality testing.

On a personal note, I have done interviews of candidates for a mission organization and I have suggested that they use a couple psychological tests in their evaluations. I think they actually asked me for recommendations because the standard in mission’s interviews is to use psychological tests. Also, when you have a short period of time with someone, a psychological test might give you a specific direction for questions that could be useful. The critical issue here is that it is irresponsible to make critical decisions about someone based on their answers to a test. A test, at its best, raises questions that can be explored together.

The good with tests? Some experienced test-givers can gather a crazy amount of information from a test. The first time I observed this, I thought the test-interpreter was some kind of seer. In time, however, the process was de-mystified, because experienced people can get lots of information from what seems to be a little snippet of life. For example, an experienced observer could probably tell me things about myself, which I would rather not know, by watching me drive a car.

The cautions? Here are a couple. (1) Some people fall in love with tests, and the test categories become biblical categories generating statements like this: “Oh, you are an INTJ (MBTI** result), that’s why you did that.” That becomes a hindrance to knowing and loving because you feel like you have mastered everything you need to know about the other person. (2) Since biblical counseling aspires to a counseling method that is accessible to everyone—we believe that counseling ministry is public domain—we tend to not emphasize tools that demand some technical expertise.

With these things in mind, we could then look at specific tests and talk about their advantages or disadvantages. But at some point we would probably say, “Let’s talk about something more important.”

*MMPI – refers to Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory

**MBTI – refers to Myers-Briggs Type Indicator