Psychometrics, neuroscience and the quantum xeno effect
Quantum physics is a subject which has troubled physicists for many years now (it certainly troubled me when I did my physics degree!). Some of the more outlandish aspects and implications of its theories have been somewhat ignored by many scientists, just because they result in too much questioning of some fundamental ways in which we perceive the world. However some of these aspects are now being used to understand brain function and the outcomes could be, among many other things, that psychometrics (beloved in the leadership development industry) could just be harmful to personal development. Let’s start with a simple thought experiment from quantum mechanics…
Schrodinger’s cat (a reasonably famous thought experiment): you put a cat in a sealed box, with a vial of poisonous gas, and a radioactive particle which has a 50% chance of decaying, and if it does so, it will cause the vial of gas to break and kill the cat (cat lovers: please remember this is just a thought experiment).
Traditional Newtonian physics would say that one of the two things has happened – the cat lives or dies – and when you open the box you will find out which one occurred. This is our common sense view of the world, which unfortunately quantum physics says is wrong.
Under quantum physics (to be completely accurate here, the Copenhagen interpretation) the particle exists as a superposition of wave states of both the decayed and non-decayed particle, until it is observed. This relies on the idea that all matter is energy, as per Einstein’s famous equation (E=mc2), and that until something is observed it exists as a quantum possibility in a wave form (weird, I know, but quantum physics is weird!). What Schrödinger realised is that when you set up this thought experiment, then not only the particle, but the entire cat exists both alive and dead as a superposition of states, which collapse when they are observed. What this means is that until we try to check whether the cat is alive (i.e. the particle has decayed) it is neither and both simultaneously. The state of the particle, and therefore the cat, is only defined when it is observed and measured.
This implies something important that I will come back to: the act of measuring or observing is not just measuring or observing what exists, but may well create the ‘reality’ which we measure.
The quantum Xeno (or Zeno) effect takes this a step further. If you have a particle which is due to decay, and you measure repeatedly the state of the particle, or continuously observe it, it will never decay. This means that you can effectively ‘freeze’ the particle, or wider system, in a known initial state through observation and measurement. As the particle is always observed, it never gets to exist in the state of quantum probabilities and wave forms, and therefore it never decays. It remains fixed in this state, and will continue to remain fixed in that state.
Some neuroscientists (see ‘The Mind and the Brain’ by Jeffery Schwartz) are using the quantum Xeno effect to understand the workings of the brain. Specifically they are looking at this effect as a way to explain the operation of free will (more on this in the book if you are interested).
There is a whole industry which has developed around the measuring and testing of personalities (which are generally accepted to be located in the brain), through psychometric tools. They are used in leadership development, team working, personal development etc. Psychometric tests are designed to measure some aspect of our personality – preferences or traits. One of the measures of validity in any of these instruments is their reliability – i.e. if I repeat the test will I get the same result.
One of the things that quantum physics may suggest is that measurement in this way, shapes the outcome of the test. The quantum Xeno effect goes further, and could suggest that by repeatedly measuring personality (I have met people who have been tested many times during their careers), we fix it and make it static.
A central belief in psychology is that personality, at least to some degree, is formed in the early years and stays the same throughout our lives. This is in part due to tests that have been done on personality (the same tests which are valid if they return a reliable response).
The problem is that the act of measuring / observing / testing personality, could in fact make it static and fixed. It may be that personality would evolve more freely without such testing. Ultimately it will be impossible to ever know, but it’s important for our industry to question its practices and its reliance on personality questionnaires. In an interconnected quantum world, everything we try and measure has an impact on the outcome – whether the impact of these questionnaires is a positive one is something we should consider.
This is, I recognise, a very tentative conclusion. It’s based on applying some of the weirder aspects of quantum physics to brain function and personality, all of which are fields in which our understanding is developing and changing. This is by no means a proof of psychometrics as a bad thing. My intention is more to begin a conversation that draws some of our understanding from these newer fields into the field of psychology and leadership development, so that we develop and improve our industry.