Psychology and testing are not strangers to each other. The tester will learn of this in the very first chapter of the International Software Testing Qualification Board’s (ISTQB) Foundation syllabus. The IT industry is often perceived as a technical one, and rightfully so, but it is nonetheless used by us, humans, each with our own psychological attributes that come into play when we interact. So, let’s recap the psychological applications mentioned in the ISTQB that affect the testing process, and then move on to those that were left out for individual contemplation.

Psychological Aspects Mentioned By ISTQB

Break It vs. Make It

In the first chapter of the Foundation syllabus there is a subsection called “The Psychology of Testing” which states the obvious (however the often forgotten) – that there is a human being behind each software in testing. Moreover, this is a person with his or her own mindset. What is noteworthy, the developer’s mindset is different than that of the tester’s. The developer’s focus is to ‘make it’, while the tester’s – to ‘break it’, so, essentially, they’re contradicting each other. Yet, in the software industry this difference should be embraced. The testers are there to help the developers produce the best possible product.

Everybody Wants To Be Good

Depending on the size and the development stage of a project, there might be a need for a different level of testing independence. This independence is encouraged because of the psychological concept known as confirmation bias which means that the person might be prone to look for supporting evidence for his or her beliefs (in this case – the code) rather than an evidence to the contrary. Basically, it means that, firstly, the developer’s intention is to show that the code works.

ISTQB states four levels of independencies for testing (from the lowest to the highest):

  • Tests designed by the person who wrote the code.
  • Tests designed by the person from the development team but not the one who wrote the code.
  • Tests designed by another specialist within the same company.
  • Tests designed by a specialist from a different organization.

The higher the security and the quality stakes, the more the company should lean towards the more independent testing. What is more to consider while writing the project documentation is that there are always assumptions made – about the product development process and, most often, about the product usability for the end user. An independent tester can check whether these assumptions are true before the product reaches the market.

Don’t Kill The Messenger

However, independent testing has its drawbacks, too. It creates a shift in responsibility for one’s piece of work. Whenever there are delays, the testers might have to deal with the blame from the rest of the team since it is at the stage of their involvement that the extent of the necessary improvements are identified.

It is only human for us to feel upset when we are told that our work is not as good as we initially thought. Because of this, one of the best traits that a tester needs to have is the ability to communicate in a constructive way. The message should be conveyed in a manner that defines the fault in the system without attacking the creator of the product whose work has introduced the fault. If you communicate clearly, focusing on the issue and not on the person who (you might think) is responsible, you will be on your way of delivering constructive feedback.

Cognitive Bias To Consider

Practice Empathy

The best example of attribution error in my own line of work is a question often heard, “Did the developers even run their own code before passing it on to testing?” This type of cognitive bias falls into blaming the person behind the situation rather than the circumstances or the situation itself. This might have a negative impact on the relationships between the testers and the developers, therefore, it is crucial for both parties to realize that their work is interdependent and they benefit from each other. The QAs can often be not as technodexterous while the developers might struggle with overcoming the confirmation bias. To create the best product possible, both parties should acknowledge the value of each other’s work towards the common goal. We are here to support each other regardless of how cheesy it might sound!

Now vs. Later

If you could do something today that would lead you to some sort of a reward, would you want it now or a month from now? One time, one test lead told me that he thought I had to write the bug reports faster without paying too much attention to detail if it took too much time. I remember being confused by that because, as I saw it, I was producing the best work I could for everybody else to understand it clearly regardless of their background or experience. However, this is an example of the hyperbolic discounting at its best – a common trait in testing. What it basically means is that the value of the gains today is perceived as more valuable than that of those tomorrow.

The advice I was given then was that the faster I produced the bug reports, faster the development team could receive the information about the bug and act on it. It turned out, the time the development team might have spent raising queries over (hypothetical) uncertainties in my report was significantly shorter than the time I would have spent outlining every problem to the smallest detail to begin with. This was me experiencing the hyperbolic discounting in action firsthand. Moreover, while psychology talks about the hyperbolic discounting as a perception fallacy, in testing it often proves to be true since time is of the essence.

Additional Psychological Theories Applicable To Testing Organization Efficiency

Who’s Responsible?

Psychologists have carried out a lot of research on not only how the human mind works in isolation, but also on how it is affected when other people are around. It appears that when we have others present we as a species tend to act less responsible than when we are by ourselves. We become less responsible in our actions because we believe that others will or have already taken the necessary action. This is called the diffusion of responsibility. Because of it, some things need to be kept in mind:

  • There should always be a designated person to make the final call.
  • The team needs to be clear on who this person is.
  • The larger the team the more discussion time needs to be allocated for the decision-making process.

Even though this may not apply to every team and situation out there, but, generally speaking, the concept stands true. For instance, if a team of five had to perform five test runs, and were left to decide among themselves which device or build they wanted to take, in most cases, the decision making as to who should do what would take considerably more time than if the tasks were assigned to everyone by the team lead.

You can read more on this in this paper.


Who would you be more afraid to come across – a bear or a rabbit? The way in which your brain perceives and judges obstacles as easy or difficult to overcome is called the stimulus – response (S-R) compatibility and it affects the amount of time which is taken before the decision to act. The more complex the issue, the more time the brain will need to take action. Of course, it varies from person to person, but, in general, all employees will process the same complicated issues similarly. The human brain is somewhat like a computer – so, in this sense the identical hardware from different manufacturers will process information similarly. In order to overcome our fears and anxieties over great workloads psychologists offer various ways of utilizing the human brain for more effective information processing.

So, what actually leads to faster reaction times (i.e. faster deliverables)? The reduction of the stimulus, which can be achieved by breaking up complicated issues or large workloads into smaller, more manageable chunks. When the S-R stimuli match, the job can be done faster. At work this principle comes into play when, for example, you see a test run of 1000 manual test cases, and your brain immediately focuses on the amount of work, especially if there is a time pressure (which, almost always, there is).

Next time let’s consider five test runs of 200 cases – a stimulus that’s five times smaller. Psychology is not a finite math so the commutative property of addition doesn’t apply here. In psychology, if you divide a stimulus by five (even if this means repeating the work five times), it would require less brain response time than when dealing with the five times stronger stimulus just once. Admittedly, in this case you would also need to mobilize the team five times, which is an additional inefficiency to consider in the final calculation. Therefore, make sure you are tuned into your team – communicate clearly and empathize what will help you decide on the best action for each situation.

To Sum Up…

When the time is of the essence, avoid diffusion of responsibility – assign and delegate. Recognize hyperbolic discounting when you see one. There are times when reward tomorrow is more valuable than it is today, but there are times when it is vice versa. Evaluate and make a decision. If you’re a manager, recognize the stimulus-response (S-R) compatibility effect. If you can reduce the stimulus in order to reduce the anxiety in your team, do not hesitate to do that. We live in a very fast-paced time. If there is a psychological tool to make it appear less stressful, why not to use it?

Goes without saying, don’t judge, practice empathy and treat others with respect. Even when your communication is mainly using virtual messaging tools (when it is even easier to let your guard down). Attribution error sneaks up on everybody more often than we would like to admit to ourselves. Embrace the roles you have or the members of your team have. Everyone plays an important role in achieving the common goal. There are no “lead singers” and “backing vocalists”.

As Plato has said, “Rhetoric is the art of ruling the minds of men.” But in order to know your rhetoric you must understand the person in front of you. Such skills come even handier if you need to manage a whole team. Recognizing the psychological aspects of human behavior related to everyday testing work can save relationships, time and altogether – the money.