Is Online Psychological Testing Reliable?

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June 2, 2020
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Online Psychological Testing

The range of options when it comes to online psychological help is very wide. From online psychological testing to support groups to professional online counseling services, the options are endless. One of the first steps that many people take when addressing mental health issues is taking any of the numerous personality tests and screenings online. These tests often serve as the entry point to utilizing a range of other in-person or online therapy services. So let’s explore the possibilities available for assessing mental health online.

A range of tests, quizzes and screening instruments are available for those that want quick answers. Some are broad screening tests for specific mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, borderline personality disorder and PTSD. Others provide personality testing and still others offer to provide you with a comprehensive diagnosis of your marriage problems. Most are short and scored online and many are available free to the public.

But are these assessment tools valid and reliable? In other words do they measure what they actually say they will measure and would they be able to produce stable and consistent results? These are the kinds of questions psychologists ask when trying to evaluate an assessment tool.

So, for instance, if I want to measure depression I would need to make sure that the scale I develop to measure depression is an adequate and consistent measure of depression. The development of assessment tools is actually a lengthy process taking hours of research and administration of the tests to many individuals. So when evaluating assessment tools online, it’s probably a good idea to approach them with a good dose of skepticism.

The best-case scenario for online psychological testing is where a website is employing a widely used assessment tool for the issue you want to understand. Here a tool that has been scientifically developed is merely being delivered in an online modality. Second best is where websites are using established psychological assessment testing that has some minor adaptations made so that it’s easier to administer online.

If the test seems to have been developed solely for the purposes of the particular website, then approach the assessment and any results with caution. This is particularly true of sites that do not provide a rationale or explanation for how the assessment was developed. There are some tests however that just have good “face” validity. In other words, the test is either assessing a relatively simple concept or subjectively seems to measure what it says it’s going to measure. For instance, if a test for depression is simply based on the current diagnostic criteria from DSM V, such a test clearly could serve as an adequate preliminary screening measure for clinical depression.

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Another thing to consider is the source or providers of the assessment. Some tests, such as those on this website, list the source for the criteria used to develop the questions as well as the mental health professional that compiled them. Others, may not list this information, but they are associated with reputable mental health organizations such as Mental Health America.

Online psychological tests, quizzes and screening tools are not diagnostic, but may assist a person worried about a set of symptoms in getting access to information and developing the confidence to speak with a mental health professional about their problem. These kinds of screenings are often the first step for people seeking out the help they need.

For many, this allows for a space without stigma to explore their symptoms before moving on to a mental health professional and getting a valid and reliable diagnosis. This is how responsible sites that offer online psychological testing, quizzes and screening frame the services they offer. However if these screening sites serve as the last stop for people trying to understand their mental health concerns, they can be a highly inadequate and even dangerous form of online psychological help.

Dr. Stacey Leibowitz-Levy is a highly experienced psychologist with a Master’s Degree in Clinical Psychology (Cum Laude) and a PhD in the area of stress and its relation to goals and emotion. She works with adults, teens and children within her areas of expertise.