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Psychologists have long known that how a person performs on certain tasks may be altered just by another person's presence during the task, even if the observer doesn't intentionally interfere with the task. Commonly referred to as "social facilitation," this phenomenon often plays out in athletic or physical skills, such as a person's running or biking speed, but is also seen during cognitive tasks, like word generation and concept attainment. Similarly, studies show that the presence of an observer during neuropsychological testing skews the evaluation results, says Robert J. McCaffrey, PhD, psychology professor at the University of Albany, State University of New York. The effect, he says, takes place whether the observer is present physically or even when an evaluation is audio or video recorded.

For this reason, McCaffrey, along with the National Academy of Neuropsychology and the American Academy of Clinical Neuropsychology, opposes third-party observers during neuropsychological examinations.

He says the best way to deal with the effects of social facilitation is to standardize evaluations, allowing only the person being tested and the person doing the testing to be present for the examination- "end of story."

But some psychologists disagree, says Daniel Krauss, JD, PhD, associate psychology professor at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. Krauss, along with Randy Otto, PhD, of the Louis de la Parte Florida Mental Health Institute, suggest that a ban on third-party observers could be problematic because some states, including New York and Florida, allow examinees to bring in observers for certain court-ordered evaluations to ensure the exam's accuracy. They also recommend that standardization be considered differently depending on whether the examination involves testing or interviewing. And in some cases, says Krauss, certain third parties-interpreters, for example-are needed to facilitate evaluations that would have been difficult otherwise.

Krauss and McCaffrey will debate their perspectives, as well as the effects of prohibiting third-party observers on the use of psychometricians and the training of psychology students, at the APA Annual Convention symposium "Third-Party Observers in Psychological and Neuropsychological Forensic Psychological Assessment," Saturday, Aug. 18, at noon.

The session, sponsored by the Board of Scientific Affairs' Committee on Psychological Tests and Assessment (CPTA), will also help psychologists understand the importance of this issue in advance of the group's forthcoming policy statement on third-party observers, says Antonio E. Puente, PhD, CPTA chair.

"The goal within CPTA is to ensure the fidelity of the evaluation," says Puente. "We want to outline the concerns we have in how psychologists address these issues."

--A. Cynkar