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Personality Testing and Clinical Judgment when Using the MMPI in Child Custody Evaluations

Gerald Bellettirie


  • The Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) is the most frequently used test in child custody evaluations.
  • An MMPI test must be administered under controlled conditions to protect the integrity of the test, score, and interpretative report.
  • Attorneys should use multiple data sources when interpreting objective personality tests.
Personality Testing and Clinical Judgment when Using the MMPI in Child Custody Evaluations
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Most evaluators conducting child custody evaluations commonly employ the use of psychological testing as one part of the evaluation process. However, there has been controversy concerning the use of psychological testing in child custody evaluations, most commonly involving the use of projective psychological testing. This is because of the problems associated with the validity and reliability of projective tests. The validity of a test is the extent to which the test is accurately measuring what it is supposed to measure. Reliability is the degree to which the test results are reproducible and consistent from one testing occasion to another. Some critics of psychological testing, such as Garber and Simon (2018), actually have called for a moratorium on the use of all psychological tests in child custody evaluations in lieu of clinical judgment. However, competent psychological evaluators understand the potential advantages and disadvantages when using psychological tests. Psychological tests administered and interpreted by a competent forensic psychologist can be of significant benefit when part of the multiple sources of data collected during the course of a child custody evaluation. Rappaport et al., 2018.

Disputed child custody cases typically have multiple allegations that attack parental competencies and other psychological issues that need to be addressed and answered by the evaluator. Numerous psychological tests are available in different categories, and the evaluator must choose the tests that will best addresses the questions that need to be examined. Quinell and Bow (2001) gathered data on the frequency of 10 categories of tests used in child custody evaluations with multiple tests in each category. They found that the most frequently used category is personality testing and the most frequently used test is the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI). The focus of this article will be on the MMPI. In this context, the term “MMPI” will be used in the generic sense because there are multiple versions of the MMPI.

Most psychological testing is conducted by psychologists trained in the administration and interpretation of the various tests that they use. However, there are some professionals who employ the use of psychological tests, specifically the MMPI, who may not be trained in the administration and interpretation of the MMPI and they may rely exclusively on computer generated interpretive reports. This issue will be addressed in greater detail because it can result in serious problems and incorrect conclusions about major issues.

Types of Personality Tests

Psychological tests used to measure personality can be subdivided into objective personality tests and projective personality tests. The following is a brief explanation about the basic differences that exist between objective and projective personality tests to put the MMPI in the proper context of it being an objective personality test. Attorneys examining or cross-examining a psychological expert should understand the basic differences in the types of personality tests and the potential advantages and disadvantages of tests that are used in a child custody evaluation.

Projective Personality Tests

Projective personality tests are designed to allow the test taker to respond to ambiguous stimuli with the assumption that underlying or hidden personality dynamics and motivations will be revealed by the individual’s responses. The responses from the projective test are then analyzed and interpreted by the professional. Projective personality tests have their roots in psychoanalytic theory. Projective personality tests are believed to tap into the “unconscious,” measuring unconscious attitudes, beliefs, motivations, fears, and drives that are beyond the person’s conscious awareness. It is the ambiguity of the stimuli presented that allows the examinee to express thoughts originating from a deeper level, more easily accessed than by explicitly asking the individual questions. The results and conclusions from projective personality tests depend upon the interpretation of the professional interpreting the test responses. Projective personality tests generally lack empirical validation and reliability because different examiners may interpret the same response very differently, causing inter-rater reliability problems. Examples of projective personality tests are the Rorschach Test, Thematic Apperception Test (TAT), Sentence Completion Test, and various projective drawing tests.

The use of projective personality tests in child custody evaluations has progressively declined over the last three decades. The basic problem with projective personality tests is that their use is difficult to defend under the scrutiny of a cross-examination by an attorney who is well versed in the use of psychological tests due to the tests’ general lack of empirical validation and reliability.

Objective Personality Tests

Objective personality tests will minimize subjectivity and maximize objectivity in that they are structured in a way that the examinee has a limited set of options, i.e., true/false, yes/no, or rating scales. Even with objective personality tests, which have a fixed style, there is still some interpretation required from the examinee’s responses. The following is a brief description of the evolution, different versions, and scoring and interpretation methods for the MMPI.

The Evolution of the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory

The MMPI is an objective personality test that was first published in 1943 by Starke Hathaway, PhD and J. Charnley McKinley, MD who were working to develop a routine diagnostic instrument. They used an empirical approach in the construction of the various scales of the MMPI. The process involved identifying two groups of people, a criterion group that was considered the “normal” group and a second group referred to as the “clinical” group, made up of psychiatric patients with various psychological disorders from the University of Minnesota Hospital. The authors collected a large pool of potential test items. The test taker was instructed to read the statement and decide whether it was true or false as it applies to them. This was then followed by empirical item analysis to differentiate between the normal group and the clinical group with various psychological disorders. Scale construction was then performed, and item analysis was conducted for each of the groups in order to identify the items in the pool that differentiated significantly between the clinical group and the normal group. J.R. Graham, 1990.

Statistical analyses were performed to cross-validate the clinical scales. Validity scales were developed to screen and account for dishonesty for both underreporting (e.g., in a custody evaluation when the individual is trying to appear well adjusted, virtuous, of good moral character and problem free) and for overreporting (e.g., in an insanity defense when an individual is malingering and trying to appear seriously mentally ill). Other methods were developed by various authors using subscale analysis of the clinical scales to determine test-taking attitudes and intentional distortions. Graham, 2006.

The original MMPI was used until 1989, when the first major revision, the MMPI-2, was published. J.M. Butcher et al., 1989. In 2008, there was a revision, the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory-2-Restructured Form (MMPI-2-RF), with additional subscales with relevant new data but the same norms of the MMPI-2. Ben-Porath & Tellegen, 2008/2011. The third edition, the MMPI-3, was developed because the MMPI-2 and MMPI-2-RF shared norms that were over 30 years old and no longer represented the current population of the United States. The MMPI-3 revision provided updated items, scales, and norms. Y.S. Ben-Porath & A. Tellegan, 2020.

The MMPI also has norms for the following specific populations: for the adolescent population, the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory-Adolescent (MMPI-A) and the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory-Adolescent-Restructured Form (MMPI-A-RF); for adult populations, the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI-2), the MMPI-2-RF, and the MMPI-3; and for police candidate selection, the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory-2-Restructured Form Police Candidate Report (MMPI-2-RF PCIR) and the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory Third Edition Police Candidate Interpretive Report (MMPI-3 PCIR). The MMPI-2 and MMPI-2RF have specific norms for child custody litigants and other forensic populations. The MMPI-3 currently only has specialized norms for police officer candidates. D.M. Corey & Y.S. Ben-Porath, 2020.

Test Administration, Scoring, and Interpretative Reports

To preserve the integrity of the MMPI test, it is imperative that it is administered under controlled conditions either while it is being proctored by an individual or under video and audio surveillance with all electronic devices (i.e., mobile phones or electronic tablets) turned off or stored in a separate room. There is vast amount of information on the internet about high-stakes tests such as the MMPI that would reduce the integrity of the test. This is an issue that should be addressed during the examination or cross-examination of an expert to determine if the MMPI was administered under properly controlled conditions. There have been cases in which an individual was given the test to take home to complete, which should be considered invalid.

All versions of the MMPI can be hand scored, computer scored, or computer scored with a computer-generated interpretive report. While computer scoring will eliminate the clerical errors associated with hand scoring, there may be more complex problems associated with the use of computer-generated interpretive reports. Caution needs to be made when using the computer-generated interpretative reports because they are based on group norms and data from the population that the test authors used to derive the norms. The computer-generated interpretive report does not have all of the relevant information about the examinee’s background and history that the clinical evaluator should have gathered. For this reason, the authors of the computer-generated interpretive reports include a warning that the professional who is using the interpretive report needs to be able to independently interpret the test. For example, the MMPI-3 interpretive report states:

This interpretive report is intended for use by a professional qualified to interpret the MMPI-3. The information it contains should be considered in the context of the test taker’s background, the circumstances of the assessment, and other available information.

This caveat is also included in the MMPI-2, MMPI-2-RF and the MMPI-3 interpretive reports and also for the specialized MMPI interpretive reports such as the MMPI-3 PCIR by David M. Corey, PhD and Yossef S. Ben-Porath, PhD.

NCS Pearson Assessments has the license to distribute the materials for computer scoring and computer-generated interpretative reports for the different versions of the MMPI. Regents of the University of Minnesota, MMPI-3 Report, 2020. They will only distribute their tests to qualified users who have a specific required level of education, training, and licensure. Each test that NCS Pearson distributes requires a user qualification level that has to be met before the test can be purchased. The MMPI has a Level C qualification requirement, which is the highest user qualification. “Tests with a C qualification require a high level of expertise in test interpretation” because the professional needs to be able to interpret the test results independent of the computer generated-interpretative report. The test also needs to be safeguarded from inappropriate use or distribution. NCS Pearson Assessments, 2020.

Expert testimony will usually involve a discussion about the T-Scores on the MMPI, and it is important for the attorney examining an expert to have a basic understanding of the meaning of a T-Score. Raw scores on the MMPI validity scales and clinical scales are transformed into a standardized metric termed a “T-score” with a mean score of 50 and a standard deviation score of 10, which makes interpretation easier. There is a different transformation called a uniform T-score that assures that a given T-score has the same percentile equivalent for all scales. That is, uniform T-scores results in T-scores that are percentile equivalent for all clinical scales. Butcher et al., 1989.

T-Scores are important to inspect because T-Scores elevated over 65 are significant. However, even T-Scores below 65 can be significant when seen in combination with other scales, which would be part of the analysis done by the psychologist interpreting the test.

There are several important interpretation issues for the MMPI. First, test data from the MMPI can help to generate a hypothesis but should not be solely relied on for a conclusion. Hypotheses that are derived from test data can then be confirmed or disconfirmed by interview, history, clinical data, collateral sources of data, and/or other tests. That is, the computer-generated interpretations are based on group results that may or may not apply to the individual being tested. The computer does not factor in the examinee’s background into the interpretive report. Thus, it is essential to consider the individual’s background, including childhood and adolescence history, because a computer-based interpretation may not be accurate. Even an “objective” personality test does not preclude proper interpretation by a qualified professional.

Expert Testimony: Examination and Cross-Examination

The attorney preparing for examination or cross-examination of an expert should obtain the actual computer-generated interpretive report if it was used by the evaluator. On the direct examination, the attorney should demonstrate what evidence caused the evaluator to accept one interpretation over another if there is contradictory interpretations or interpretations different from the computer-generated interpretive report. This is when clinical judgment and the multiple sources of data are used to help the evaluator corroborate or reject the interpretation. On cross-examination, the attorney may point out that there may be a more or less favorable interpretation for the same scale elevation.

The expert should also be questioned as to why that particular version of the MMPI was chosen for the evaluation. For example, some government agencies or boards that certify public safety employees will not accept some older versions of the MMPI, such as the Municipal Police Officers’ Education and Training Commission (MPOETC), which certifies police officers in Pennsylvania because they want the more current norms. Likewise, it is this author’s opinion that the same caution needs to be taken when an examiner is evaluating a child custody litigant.

While objective personality tests have empirical psychometric data for validity and reliability, the results will still need to be interpreted. It is important to emphasize for a second time that tests generate hypotheses, not conclusions. These hypotheses are then confirmed or disconfirmed by the clinical interview, the history, clinical data, and/or other tests or collateral sources of information.

In Pennsylvania, the American Psychological Association’s (APA) 2010 Guidelines for Child Custody Evaluations in Family Law Proceedings are not just suggested guidelines; they are mandated for all psychologists by the Pennsylvania Licensing Board to follow when conducting child custody evaluations. Forensic psychologists or any psychologist conducting a forensic evaluation has an ethical obligation to consider reasonable alternative explanations when interpreting psychological test results, and the test results should not be interpreted in isolation.

It is important to use multiple sources of data when making an interpretation of an objective personality test such as the MMPI. If the psychologist simply uses the computer-generated interpretive report without closely inspecting the validity scales and the clinical scales, an improper interpretation can occur. For example, on the MMPI an individual may have elevated validity scale scores for underreporting, indicating that the individual may not have been truthful and that elevations on the clinical scales may be an underestimate of psychopathology. When there is an elevation on a validity scale for underreporting, it needs to be investigated. There are multiple reasons why validity scale elevations can occur. The degree of the elevations is also important. One must consider all possibilities for a validity scale elevation indicating a specific level of virtuous self-presentation other than the individual was not being truthful. To assume the individual was not truthful could be a serious mistake without considering corroborated evidence of intentional underreporting. Corroborating evidence in support of this possibility may contradict the computer-generated interpretation because of the information that the computer did not have. When there is an elevated validity scale score for underreporting, it must be determined if the level of virtuous self-presentation is unrealistic because elevated validity scale scores may underestimate psychopathology and problems assessed on the clinical scales. Elevated validity scale scores may be elevated because of unintentional (e.g., naïve) or intentional underreporting. The examiner needs to be able to determine the reason for the elevated validity scale scores. This requires the professional to inspect the validity scale items and compare them to available collateral information. The psychological test data should be used to make hypotheses about the individual and not to make the assumption that the narrative report is correct without corroborating evidence.

Similarly, caution needs to be taken when interpreting elevated clinical scales because they need to be taken within the context of that particular individual’s background, history, and purpose of the testing. For example, in high-conflict families undergoing a child custody evaluation, it is not uncommon for T-Scores on the scale measuring paranoia to be elevated. The professional should carefully examine corroborating evidence of paranoia. The expert should be prepared to answer questions about how they interpreted the results from the computer-generated report. An attorney who is conducting an examination or cross-examination of an expert needs to inquire as to what variables and sources of data corroborated or disconfirmed the interpretation based on additional information beyond the computer-generated interpretative report. The cross-examination should determine whether the professional considered alternative explanations for the results because there is an ethical obligation to consider reasonable alternative explanations when interpreting psychological test results, and the test results should not be interpreted in isolation. Psychologists have an ethical responsibility to accurately present the scientific and professional knowledge of the profession and to articulate the limitations of the data and the opinions offered. This responsibility applies to all personality tests. APA, 2010.

In summary, an expert giving testimony during the examination or cross-examination needs to be able to articulate why they chose a specific version of the MMPI; the conditions under which the administration took place, specifically if the test was proctored to preserve the integrity of the test; and the scoring method used and other sources of data that were used to corroborate or refute the validity and clinical scales, especially if a computer-generated interpretive report is being used. The expert should also inquire about other possible interpretations of the test results. The MMPI, when properly administered, scored, and interpreted, can be a valuable part of a child custody evaluation.

Useful Sources

American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (2013).

American Psychological Association, Guidelines for Child Custody Evaluations in Family Law Proceedings (2010).

Y. S. Ben-Porath & A. Tellegan, Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory-3, Manual for Administration, Scoring and Interpretation. University of Minnesota Press (2020).

Y. S. Ben-Porath & A. Tellegan, Minnesota Multiphasic Personality-2-Restructured Form (MMPI-2-RF): Manuel for administration, scoring and interpretation. University of Minnesota Press (2008).

J. N. Butcher, et al., Minnesota Multiphasic Personality-2 (MMPI-2) (1989).

D. M. Corey & Y. S. Ben-Porath, MMPI-2-RF User’s Guide for the Police Candidate Interpretive Report (2014).

D. M. Corey & Y. S. Ben-Porath, MMPI-3 User’s Guide for the Police Candidate Interpretive Report (2020).

J. R. Graham, MMPI-2 Assessing Personality and Psychopathology (1990).

J. R. Graham, MMPI-2 Assessing Personality and Psychopathology, Fourth Edition (2006).

NCS Pearson Assessments, Clinical Permissions & Licensing Requests (2020).

F. A. Quinnell & J. N. Bow, Psychological Tests Used in Child Custody Evaluations, Behavioral Sciences and the Law, 19: 491–501 (2001).

S. R. Rappaport et al., Psychological Testing Can Be of Significant Value in Child Custody Evaluations: Don’t Buy the “Anti-Testing, Anti-Individual, Pro-Family Systems,” Woozle, Journal of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, Vol. 30 (May 2018).

Regents of the University of Minnesota, MMPI-3 English Test Booklet, under license by NCS Pearson (2020).

Regents of the University of Minnesota, MMPI-3 Report, distributed exclusively under license by NCS Pearson (2020).