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Exploring Psychological vs. Neuropsychological Tests: Key Differences

May 31, 2024 | Mental Wellness, Therapy Expectations

Psychological and neuropsychological testing are terms frequently talked about in the medical and mental health fields. Your child may need testing for autism? Testing for ADHD? Learning disabilities? Oppositional or conduct disorder? You may have or need testing for depression? Anxiety? Concussive disorder? A personality disorder? Obsessive compulsive disorder? ADHD? Asperger’s disorder? A loved one might have memory loss and need testing for dementia? Stroke? A brain injury? Personality changes? “Let’s get some testing!”

Psychological and neuropsychological testing are frequently used in these situations to assist a medical provider or mental health provider distinguish one disorder from another. This distinction can assist the provider in tailoring your treatment in a particular way, more suited to the specific condition you have. Here are some useful tips and concepts to consider if you are told “Let’s get some testing!”

The Basics of Psychological and Neuropsychological Testing

The earliest examples of psychological testing are found in France in 1902 when Alfred Binet, a psychologist, developed a series of tests to identify French children who had intellectual challenges and needed professional help in school. In this country, psychologist Robert Wordworth developed tests World War I to screen potential soldiers for mental health problems and identifying victims of shell shock.

The decades of the 1940’s and 1950’s exploded with all sorts of psychological tests to measure intelligence and personality factors. Many of these tests continue to be used today, with numerous refinements and improvements along the way. Psychological testing parallels the growth of clinical psychology as a profession prominent in the mental health field today.

Psychological Testing Defined

Psychological testing is at the intersection where science, statistics, and mental health meet. Psychological tests measure and describe a person’s abilities, personality traits, ways of coping, symptoms they have, or thinking abilities such as memory, attention, or academic levels. Psychological testing is based on “norms” or where a person falls on a trait or characteristic compared to others their age or demographics. The accuracy of the scores a person receives on a psychological test is reliant on how accurate and well-constructed the norms are for that test.

The American Psychological Association supports and publishes a vast catalogue of scientific studies psychologists rely upon in choosing the tests they use in a psychological evaluation. All tests are not equally good at measuring something. It takes a well-trained psychologist to be able to select, administer, and interpret the best psychological tests available.

Psychological and Neuropsychological Tests: Is there a difference?

Psychological test is a general term encompassing all tests used by psychologists. Neuropsychological test is a subset of that, used by psychologists trained in neuropsychology. To learn what makes a test a neuropsychological test we go back to the concept of testing as at the intersection of science, statistics, and mental health. Neuropsychological tests are developed based on the science of the brain and how the brain affects behaviors we can observe.

We can use neuropsychological tests to infer what is going on with the brain. Is it working properly? Is there a problem in some areas of the brain? Not all psychological tests can do that, and not all psychologists are trained to be able to do that. Because of the relationship of neuropsychological tests to brain science, neuropsychological tests can detect conditions known to be associated with impaired brain functioning, such as attention, memory, problem solving ability, and emotional control. ADHD, strokes, dementia, traumatic brain injuries, and an array of neurological and medical conditions can be studied and measured with neuropsychological tests. Based on the tests, the neuropsychologist can make inferences about the relative health or impairment in brain functioning. This can be a great aid to medical decision making and what aids or services a person may need to be safe and content in their environment.

What’s up with online testing? Is that legitimate?

The answer to these questions is not a simple yes or no. It’s complicated, but here is a way to think about it. Two independent trends have developed over the last decade. First, the internet and internet access have exploded into a major force in our society. Second, the worldwide pandemic of 2019 has shifted the way people access goods and services of all types, including healthcare and mental health.

As a result, the internet is loaded with offers of psychological tests of all types and for all conditions including tests for ADHD, autism, depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder and many others. The majority of offerings of this type are for entertainment value only. They are inadequate even for use as a screening for a mental health condition. Remember, psychological tests are at the intersection of science, statistics, and mental health. And, they need to be well normed. If these conditions are not met, it is advised to stay clear of them.

How does the public know the difference? One key factor is whether there will be a licensed psychologist individually working with you through the entire process. This process should include conducting an initial interview, selecting and sending tests specific to your individual situation, interpreting the tests based on their knowledge of the tests and your specific history and symptoms, conducting an individualized feedback session where your questions are answered, and providing enough information and support so that you can transition into the next level of care. Essentially, the public should view online testing as whether this is a professional service which happens to be online, or an online test masquerading as a professional service.

I hope this has demystified some of the confusion around psychological and neuropsychological tests. If you have additional questions or comments I can be reached at:

Bill Bloom, Ph.D., Licensed Psychologist

Start My Wellness


Dr. Anton Babushkin

Author: Anton Babushkin, PhD

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