John Rust talks psychometrics, the internet and Amy Winehouse
Where did you study/what did you study/what are your qualifications?
I left school in England at age 16 but, once I had completed my A levels by correspondence course from a small village in Rajasthan, India, entered Birkbeck College as a mature student and eventually qualified with 1st class honours in psychology with statistics and computer science. My PhD was obtained at the Institute of Psychiatry in London (now part of Kings College) in 1974, and I added an MA in Philosophy in 1976. My education continued for another year on the MSc course in Astrophysics at Queen Mary College, also in London.
I’ve spent my working life in academia, first with a lectureship at the London Institute of Education, then a Readership at Goldsmiths College and a Chair in Psychometrics at City University London. However, psychometrics is the basis for a huge industry and, by its very nature, affects real lives.
My work on the development and adaptation of so many tests, mostly for this company, has given me many links and friendships outside the academic world with colleagues in schools, hospitals, businesses and public bodies everywhere. I moved to Cambridge in 2005 and am now Director of The Psychometrics Centre, a Strategic Research Network of the University of Cambridge.
I have published a broad range of psychometric tests: Orpheus, a work based personality test; Giotto, an integrity test; RANRA, a test of numerical reasoning; RISC, a test of schizotypal thinking; the PSAI, a test of sex role behavior in children, and the and the , which assess various aspects of social relationships.
I have also managed a large number of test adaptations for the UK market: both WISC-III and WISC-IV, the WIAT, the CELF, the Bayley, the MABC and the Raven's - Educational. My textbook Modern Psychometrics is now in its 3rd edition and has recently been translated into Chinese.
I have always had an interest in the interface between disciplines. The journal Philosophical Psychology that I founded in 1986 brings together philosophers, psychologists and other cognitive scientists to address shared concerns. And The Psychometrics Centre now includes not just psychologists but also mathematicians, linguists, information engineers, statisticians, marketers and educationists among its members.
What are your current projects?
Perhaps the one I find most exciting is the development of Concerto, our open-source online adaptive testing system. Adaptive tests respond to the behaviour of the test-taker; if he or she gets items wrong, then the items get easier; if right, then increasingly more difficult. The mathematics for scoring are a challenge, but now many of the necessary algorithms are available in the open-source computer language R.
The internet has really bought this form of testing into the limelight, but for far too long it had been the preserve of large and tightly controlled testing companies. We aim to change all that by making the platform, software, algorithms and know-how open to everyone. Very shortly adaptive systems will be commonplace on the internet, leading to greatly increased accuracy and acceptability for users and test-takers alike.
A second project that fascinates is the work of our PhD students in opening up social networks to the realities of self-assessment. Today, their Facebook Apps enable users to obtain feedback on their scores on an increasing number of tests, with over 6 million participants worldwide. This is an unprecedented tool for psychological research. Questions that once needed a two-year research council grant can now be answered in an afternoon.
Who have you worked with?
The folk at the Institute of Psychiatry in the early 70s: Hans Eysenck, Irene Martin, Owen White, Marty Seligman, Charlie Spielberger and many others, had a major impact. Together they gave me the confidence to stand up for the ideas I believe in.
More recently I value the links I have built with the worldwide psychometric community following our successful hosting of the 16th International Meeting of The Psychometrics Society in 2009. I have a great respect for the work of Jim Flynn and Bob Sternberg who underpin our centre’s commitment to a psychometrics free from the perils of eugenics. But mostly I work with the fantastic team of scholars and PhD students at the Psychometrics Centre in Cambridge.
What inspired you to get into this field?
Originally I became involved because psychometrics combined my interest in psychology with my background in mathematics. However, the more I became aware of the pivotal role psychometrics plays in society, the more important it became for me to encourage psychologists to attend to the social, political and policy implications of their work.
It seemed to me simply wrong that an area of psychology that was arguably the most important in terms of its impact – almost everyone take tests, many of them high stakes, and from the cradle to the grave – should within academia tend to be the preserve of those who studied individual differences within a narrow evolutionary biology or neurological stance. There is an urgent worldwide shortage of psychometricians, and hence a need to make the discipline appealing to those from diverse backgrounds. It’s an area of psychology where potentially you can really make a difference.
If you weren’t a psychologist, what would you be?
Probably a mathematician – although where that would have led I’ve no idea.
What do you do away from work?
Play the classic guitar. I particularly like flamenco and Latin music. Holidays in interesting places: perhaps Turkistan is the next stop.
What’s your favourite book (and why)?
The Illuminati trilogy (because it really runs amok with conspiracy theory)
What’s your favourite album?
This week I have to say Back to Black by Amy Winehouse
Who’s your favourite musician/composer/singer?
Chambao – I overheard the music in a taxi on Bridge Street, Cambridge, a few years ago, asked the driver for the name of the album and have been playing it ever since.
Whom do you most admire (and why)?
Wittgenstein – a rather boring man maybe, but a major inspiration to clear thinking.
John is Director of The Psychometrics Centre, University of Cambridge.