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The Importance of Sources: The Persona Documentary

Person holding a paper in front of their face as a way to signify the personality assessments discussed in the Personal Documentary.
The Persona documentary is riddled with problems that we highlight in today's article.

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We were sad to hear a lot of buzz about the Persona HBO documentary this weekend. Normally, this would be right up our alley. We love documentaries and we love talking about organizational psychology and assessments. However, watching this documentary opened our eyes to a number of issues with this portrayal of our field. Today, we talk about the problems with this documentary. Also, check out this statement here from the Society of Industrial/Organizational Psychology.

The Sadness of Agendas

Hopefully, we all understand the importance of sources in the media we consume. We know that there are more or less reliable news sources out there. We’ve also talked about the importance of understanding science and finding reliable science sources as well. Unfortunately, this applies to documentaries, podcasts, and similar media types that tend to be scrutinized a bit less frequently.

We are all guilty of watching documentaries as a way to learn something new. The Persona documentary was a rude awakening that bias and agendas trickle into these spaces too. In the end, documentaries need to bring in an audience. Unfortunately, controversy, fear, and drama sell. As Industrial/Organizational Psychologists, we know the sources that were left out. Sadly, we know the story that wasn’t told. Thus, we hope this article serves as a reminder for all of us – always check the sources of documentaries too.

So What’s Wrong with the Persona Documentary?

There are a few major issues with the Persona Documentary. Mostly, the documentary minimized the science and conflated multiple issues to seem the same.

Using good data and science makes all the difference!

Cutting Out the Science

The documentary starts off discussing the Meyers-Briggs personality test (or MBTI). As we’ve talked about before, there is very little science to support the MBTI. The criticisms of this test are completely valid. However, those same criticisms do not apply to the many scientifically validated assessments. These types of assessments can help employers understand whether someone would be likely to perform well – but it’s also about fit to the job. Employees are happier on the job when they fit well to the culture and when they perform well. No one wants to be in a job where they feel like a failure.

It’s hard for both the employee and the company when there’s a bad fit. Assessments can help make the relationship more positive. Not every job candidate is going to be a good fit within every company or job. And that’s ok! Just like not everyone is into horror movies or reality tv, not everyone likes the same type of company culture or job.

The Persona documentary also talks about assessments hurting diversity or measuring some clinical/mental health problems. This is far from the truth of good, valid assessments. First, good hiring assessments do not measure mental health. The science actually shows that using assessments correctly in hiring typically improves diversity. When you have good psychologists working on an assessment, you can study bias or issues with the tool. This work can help reduce or remove any of the potential bias. There are methods to remove the biases in data if you know where to look for it. Properly trained Industrial/Organizational Psychologists know how to do this! Plus, they continue to strive to make assessments as effective and unbiased as possible.

We know there are many assessments out in the market and some do have the flaws mentioned in Persona. However, the documentary clearly misses the mark by not differentiating bad vs. scientifically sound assessments.

Conflating Multiple Issues

Additionally, another major issue with the Persona documentary is the link between Artificial Intelligence (AI) and assessments. Assessments definitely leverage data. This is true. Psychologists create statistical models to help understand who would be the right fit for a job. Psychologists use data to understand any potential for bias, create valid predictions, and to test that things are working properly. However, the majority of good assessments on the market are not hands-off AI machines as the documentary makes it seem.

Personality Assessments and Artificial Intelligence are not the same thing!

What Persona got right is that there are some companies using technology and data incorrectly to make decisions about people. A majority of those companies are not leveraging good science or ethical and well-trained organizational psychologists. We do not advocate for pure AI-driven decisions. There has not been enough research into things like facial recognition or AI-driven personality assessments. Companies that have been leveraging these tools on candidates have been testing their theories inappropriately. None of those types of tools should ever go live without rigorous peer-reviewed research. However, the Persona documentary made it seem like all assessments use AI or a non-human approach to hiring. And this is completely false. Strong, scientifically validated assessments have a team of psychologists actively working on them and are not allowing AI to drive all of the work at this time.

Additionally, it’s important to know that assessment data are one piece of the hiring puzzle and should not be used on their own. They can help give hiring managers insight into a person but people are incredibly complex. One data point alone is not enough to understand candidates. That’s why resumes, interviews, and other types of information are still incredibly important. We know a good validated assessment can provide a lot of value but it isn’t a silver bullet.

Conclusion

We could probably spend another several thousand words talking about the flaws in the Persona documentary. However, we think we’ve gone far enough – for now. Mostly, we want you to think critically when you see a documentary. Also, we want to leave you with the fact that ethical organizational psychologists are not out to prevent people from being hired. We want to make sure employees thrive. We at Workr Beeing aren’t the only ones that believe this. Katina and I like to use a workplace wellness lens and focus on research in this area. However, all of the research in the field can be leveraged to help employees thrive at work. And when employees thrive at work, the company wins too. It can be a win-win for everyone involved – if we leverage good science.

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