Relevance of Psychological Testing During SSB

The system is in vogue for over sixty years now without change both in procedure and tests except minor addition of screening test that was introduced in 1998 in Army selection Boards and later adopted by Air force and the Naval Selection Boards.

Relevance of Psychological Testing During SSB

Most objective, systematic & impartial system of selection that continues to earn praise of the country men is the one practised in the Services Selection Boards for assessment of potential candidates for training in the different  officers’ training academies. The system is in vogue for over sixty years now without change both in procedure and tests except minor addition of screening test that was introduced in 1998 in Army selection Boards and later adopted by Air force and the Naval Selection Boards. The new batches of assessors are trained by Defence Institute of Psychological Research (DIPR) and practical training for them is conducted by Services Selection Boards (SSBs).

The training is intensive and fairly comprehensive for all three types of assessors namely, Interviewing Officers, Group Testing Officers, civil Psychologists and Technical Officers. Technical Officers also act as psychologists besides co-ordinating the functioning of Psychological testing in each SSB. DIPR is the apex technical body that monitors the work of assessment in the SSBs besides conducting research for the defence forces on various subjects including assessment and also co-ordinates the research projects of the psychologist of the SSBs. Funding for such research is also arranged by DIPR.

Group Testing Officers are provided with a Technical manual with lays down various test processes and explains various concepts of group dynamics. GTOs draw their inferences based on observed behaviour of the candidates during different exercises. The ratings are subjectively assigned on the fifteen qualities and surprisingly they generally matched with the ratings of the Interviewing officers and the psychologists. This sort of standardisation is taken as the strength of the system and a strong measure of validity of the tests and the process. Interviewing officers on the hand conduct a loosely structured interview of nearly half hour duration and rate the candidates again on the same fifteen qualities. Once again the variation with the psychologists and the GTOs is minimal in most cases.

Interviewing Officers are senior persons whereas the GTOs are relatively young in service and slightly stricter in their assessment. Clearance rate of the GTOs is minimum, may be since they actually observe the candidates performing on the ground. Interviewing Officers clear more candidates since the assessment is based on the verbal answers alone and it creates as we call Hallo effects on the assessors.  In case of all the three agencies the testing involves rating of inherent competencies that are desirable for training and later functioning as leaders of men in extreme stressful conditions. All the competencies have been provided to the assessors by the psychologists and it is the Institute of Psychological Research that trains, monitors and guides all the three sets of assessors.

To start with the reasons for the system to continue unchanged for so long is also the integrity of the assessors and their motivation for the work of assessment. They are intelligent and have large paradigms and all of them are always without exception totally secular. Never did I hear them talking in terms of regions, castes or religions. It was joy and a feeling of great pride to work in such an organised and bias free environment. It provides a feeling of awe and respect for the place. There are no delays or slip ups and every function is conducted in a prompt and well-knit manner.  Testing material is respected a great deal and stored with a feeling of pride and respect. There is a vibrant atmosphere in the Selection Boards. GTO Grounds, Psychological Testing Halls and Interview Rooms are kept clean and well organised all the time.

I never encountered even a single candidate including those who failed despite repeated attempts complaining of wrong doing on the part of the assessors. They all tried to figure out their own limitations. The fact remains that the system of testing and the tests did not change even after nearly six decades and never discussed in the public forum. Even when the screening tests were introduced in the late nineties there was little detailed discussion as regards the tests and the procedure. Everything that does not change with time suffers decay. It is cardinal truth and one cannot escape this. In this small article we shall try to see whether the tests and the testing procedure as regards Psychological Testing remain valid.  I worked as a technical officer in three services selection centres and may claim fair familiarity with the system of Psychological Testing. I will restrict myself to the Psychological Tests and related procedures alone.

Psychological testing heavily rely on ‘Projective Techniques’ deigned to let a person respond to ambiguous stimuli presumably revealing hidden emotions and internal conflicts. Unlike Objective tests the assessment is not based on universal standards. It is also not possible since each person is unique and no standardisation of assessment is possible. The tests heavily rely on clinical Judgement and are low on validity and reliability in absence of standardised criteria for comparing test results. The system is based on psychoanalytical psychology that argues that humans have conscious and unconscious attitudes and motivation that are beyond or hidden from conscious awareness.

Some advocates of the system stress that ambiguity of the stimuli within the tests allow the candidates to express thoughts that originate on a deeper level than tapped by explicit questions. There are many variants of the tests but the SSBs adopted only two i.e. TAT or Thematic Apperception Test and WAT called word Association Test out of many others. TAT is most popular and referred to as Story Writing test. The test is supposed to bring out repressed unconscious aspects of personality namely motives, achievement needs, power and intimacy, and problem solving ability etc.  Initially manuals for assessment were also tried but not applied in my knowledge. Two of these, Defence Mechanism Manual (DMM) and Social cognition and Object relations (SCOR) were popular. In SSBs no one applied these and thus the inference drawn was arbitrary.

The tests were developed by Henry A Murray and Christina D Morgan in 1930s at Harvard to reveal underlying dynamics of human personality to basically include internal conflicts, dominant drives, interests and motives. These were initially used during the Great War for evaluation of emotionally disturbed persons and later adopted for selection of persons for highly stressful jobs including that of defence services. The tests based on Freudian Principal of repression lost popularity and TAT has been severally criticised as false and out dated and unscientific since its validity and reliability cannot be checked. Why are we using a test system that has suspect validity is strange to say the least.

Now we move on to the assessors including TOs. The fundamental need is to post persons with sound background of Psychology. In absence of this they are likely to make grave errors of judgement that is inexcusable since the candidates report after stringent written tests and in case of non UPSC entries a screening test. No person who lacks this basic requirement be allowed to assess. The Psychologists posted in the SSBs have cardinal duty to conduct research on subjects related to selection and they need to work on these subjects all the time. In case they do not do so than they are as good as the Army persons posted as TOs who share the same assessment load as the psychologists and their inferences have the same weightage. Research is the soul of any system and in absence of research decay sets in sooner than later. I find only a very small number taking up relevant projects and it is a serious matter. I have not read a single research paper of any great significance during my long associations with SSBs that was conducted by psychologists posted there and it speaks volumes of their professional integrity.

Coming to assessment proper of say TATs. There are 12 stories that the candidates write under time stress. In absence of the assessment manuals the assessors should study THEMA or the central theme that emerges out of all the stories. It is more an insight that is developed in person of great experience and empathy and does not come out by applying arbitrary mechanical measures. As a result two different assessors will come up with differing themes of the same set of stories. There is no empire for the assessors and it is the final judgement that is not questioned. DIPR sometimes send a perfunctory feedback on each assessor and there is no in depth evaluation after a person is approved as assessor in the beginning.

Psychologists are supposed to visit different places of our country periodically to get a feel of the conditions under which our defence forces function. It is important so that this improves their judgement. I never saw this happening periodically and in a constant organised way. As a result large numbers never saw high altitude and inhospitable conditions in some parts where very large part of our defence forces function.  Each batch of candidates generates large amount of data that can be and should be used for research related to selection. It needs to be retained and used. It is never retained since no research is seen being conducted.

There is a question of standardisation of assessment amongst the three assessors. It is cited as a measure of the validity. Since in most cases the observations of the three independent assessors match the psychological testing procedure and tests are assumed as valid. It is correct in most of those candidates who are good and most of those who are too low. Most of those who appear in the SSBs are low and this judgement does not need a professional assessor. A small number is good and there is no problem in matching the ratings in those cases as well.  There is a group of borderline candidates who can be recommended or rejected. In their case almost always all assessors land up giving borderline ratings giving spacious arguments in the conference. Also, this sort of standardisation is a habit and one gets the hang of it soon enough. One gets to reach this soon seeing the rating patterns of their colleagues.

I want to touch upon the role of coaching institutes that are flourishing all over the country these days. As I write this piece today, NDA aspirants are flocking these coaching centres in very large numbers since the result was out a few days previously. Fundamental consideration for conduct of Psychological tests based on projective techniques is freshness and spontaneity. In case these conditions are lost the tests are vitiated. Candidates, all of them these days land up in the SSBs with what we call per motor attitude in which a candidate is already ready to respond in a particular way. They are made to mug up ideal stories and response to words in WAT. There are cheap books available in the market that is read by almost everyone without exception. All the pictures and the words are available in the market and this has completely compromised the process of assessment. Even those who are good land up giving borrowed responses. SSBs do not have have alternate testing procedure and tests. They have only Projective tests and nothing else even after many years!  Hundreds of psychologists together failed to come up with any alternate method and tests. It is pity.

There is another fundamental issue to ponder upon as regards tests. Psychological tests are supposed to test fifteen qualities namely, Effective Intelligence, Reasoning ability, Organising Ability, Power of expression, Social adaptability, Co-operation, Sense f Responsibility, Initiative, self Confidence, Speed of Decision, Ability to Influence the Group, Liveliness, Determination, Courage and stamina.  These fifteen qualities are arranged through a process of co-relations in four different sections called factors, these are Planning and Organising, Social adjustment, Social Effectiveness and Dynamic. Interestingly Moral Values and integrity and some equally important qualities have not been explicitly listed for assessment. In any case the justification provided is that these get covered in Sense of responsibility. This argument does not find favour with lots of thinking people with good reason.

Another valid question that arises with respect to fundamental setting and the tests is the premise that the entire personality to the extent it can be possibly measured is not included. The entire man cannot be restricted to just four factors. Idea of seeing person in terms of distinct factors is objectionable in the first place. Even if it is feasible to proceed in this way why restrict it to just four factors. PF 16 one most popular test to assess human personality has 16 factors and still may not encompass the entire field. This was never questioned or discussed. Defence services are the users and they have every right to be involved in formulation and development of test batteries used to measure the personality of its prospective new members. So much is at stake even if one wrong person gets recruited for want of adequately designed instrument or wrong application of such an instrument.

This discussion can go on endlessly. The basic question is that adequate on-going research is lacking and it is doing much damage to the services. In the screening test the candidates are required to write only one story besides some perfunctory testing of candidates ’situational awareness by asking them to assess age, sex and mood of the human characters in the picture presented to them to write story. How can the assessor work out theme from one picture is a mystery! The format of this screening test is so flawed that many of those who might open up slightly late are sent home the first day itself and their having passed UPSC examination goes waste and all the hopes are dashed with in a period of nearly two hours. It is unscientific and illogical. A relook at all the existing tests and viable alternatives through comprehensive research is needed and urgently at that. A detailed discussion is called for at all level.

Accountability of the psychologists and their continuous training in assessment of human personality with new instruments is to be ensured. Age old out dated tests need to be discarded since their validity is in doubt and there exists no assessment norms for projective tests. More than one type of tests needs to be introduced to minimize effect of intensive coaching by unscrupulous coaching centres. Persons with solid background of psychology are posted in the SSBs and practice of posting TOs without any such background is discontinued forthwith. DIPR needs to be answerable to the Recruiting Directorate in matters of testing in the SSBs. These simple measures should address most of the problems that now exist.

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