Recruitment Processes: Are General Mental (Cognitive) Ability Tests Really Worth It?

As part of many companies recruitment processes there are usually general mental (cognitive) tests that applicants need to complete. In a way, these tests act as a “filter” to decide which applicants will proceed to the next stage. Examples of cognitive ability tests include verbal comprehension, numerical ability, numerical reasoning and verbal reasoning. This article aims to address whether these tests are useful or not.

Cognitive ability is a broad latent idea, general mental ability (GMA) a construct helps supplements our understanding of cognitive ability. Cognitive ability can be defined as a set score on an intelligence standardized test (Chamorro-Premuzic & Furnham, 2010). GMA can be explained in terms of the ability to grasp complex concepts, solving challenges and learning from experiences (Chamorro-Premuzic & Furnham, 2010). Often, the terms ‘GMA’ and ‘cognitive ability’ are used interchangeably. There are reasons in support of using cognitive ability tests in selection such as it reduces bias, and reasons against because it causes adverse impact towards minorities. Perhaps, in the future cognitive ability tests will play a vital role in providing insight into job performance because the need for specialised roles are decreasing.

Cognitive ability can be measured using various psychometric tests which are known as cognitive ability tests. Fluid intelligence (Gf) describes using logic to solve novel situations, without using knowledge that has already been acquired. Crystallized intelligence (Gc) describes using acquired knowledge to make decisions (Chamorro-Premuzic & Furnham, 2010). Examples of psychometric tests include Raven’s Matrices, this assesses GMA (Gc) through using non-verbal and abstract reasoning, this test is popular and has benefits like mitigating linguistic bias. Another test is Wonderlic Personnel, it assesses GMA (Gc and Gf) it is a multiple-choice test that is completed online (Chamorro-Premuzic & Furnham, 2010). Also, admission tests measure intelligence because of its strong correlations with intelligence. Reasons for using cognitive ability tests include it reduces bias, to predict career success and it is simple to administer.

The first benefit of using cognitive ability tests is they are standardized tests; this mitigates the problem of bias during selection processes. The use of subjective selection tests results in biases during the recruitment process (Arthur et al 2006 in Barrick & Parks-Leduc, 2019).

Secondly, cognitive ability tests provide insights into career trajectory, higher GMA scores are linked with greater career success. For example, selective universities have stringent entry requirements, students scoring high in admission tests are more likely to enter these universities. At these leading universities, students have access to a wealth of internships and extracurricular activities. This results in vital knowledge, skills, attributes and other characteristics (KSAOs) being developed. This suggests individuals scoring high in cognitive ability tests will have access to leading organizations and consequently will perform more successfully in their job (Byington & Felps, 2010). Although, literature suggests selective universities favour the upper class (Byington & Felps, 2010). Perhaps, the use of cognitive ability tests can result in class discrimination.

Similarly, cognitive ability tests are a good predictor of job performance and training success. Bertua, Anderson & Salgado (2005) carried out a meta-analysis on the validity of GMA and cognitive ability tests in predicting job and training performance in the UK. The results showed that GMA tests are a valid predictor of job and training performance. The study also showed that GMA tests were valid predictors across different occupations, the scores ranging from .74 for complex occupations, to .32 for entry-level occupations. This shows the use of GMA tests can be used across all occupations; however, predictors were stronger in more complex occupations. Perhaps, GMA tests are higher predictors for complex jobs because individuals in these jobs went to selective universities, and developed key skills needed to succeed in complex occupations (Byington & Felps, 2010).

Furthermore, cognitive ability tests are cost-effective because they are completed online (Ones et al., 2012). Cognitive ability tests are unique because they cannot be replaced by another selection method that predicts job performance, other selection methods only add to the incremental validity of cognitive ability tests. For instance, assessment centres when combined with cognitive ability tests provide a solid incremental valid value (Ones et al., 2012).

The benefits of using cognitive ability tests show they provide us with insight into an individual’s long-term career and job performance, they are also relatively cheap and efficient. However, there are reasons against using cognitive ability tests like the adverse impact it has on ethnic minorities.

A major disadvantage of using cognitive ability tests is its adverse impact on ethnic minorities (Hough & Oswald, 2000). Research shows there are minor group differences in GMA scores between genders and ethnic groups, although there has not been enough evidence to explain why this difference exists. However, research has been completed on tests that when supplemented with cognitive ability tests they reduce adverse impact. Verive & McDaniel (1996) conducted a study on short-term memory tests to reduce adverse impact in selection processes. The results showed the average Black- White mean differences in standard deviation were less than half the mean score that is usually gathered from cognitive ability tests. Short term memory tests were viewed as reliable and correlated with training and job performance. Although, in reducing adverse impact (depending on the type of method used to supplement or replace GMA) that selection method may not always be a predictor of job performance (Sackett & Roth, 1996).

There are benefits in using cognitive ability tests such as reducing bias, however, there are disadvantages such as the adverse impact on minorities. Organizations are increasing in complexity and are becoming more widespread globally. Consequently, jobs are more volatile, and it is becoming apparent that there is no longer a need for specialised jobs. Perhaps, GMA will become more crucial for the future of organizations (Anderson et al., 2004). For this reason, the application of cognitive ability tests for selection are vital indicators of job performance, perhaps future research can investigate criterion-related validity because of the constant changes to job design (what is expected in the role) within organizations.


Anderson, N., Lievens, F., van Dam, K., & Ryan, A. M. (2004). Future Perspectives on Employee Selection: Key Directions for Future Research and Practice. Applied Psychology, 53(4), 487–501.

Barrick, M. R., & Parks-Leduc, L. (2019). Selection for Fit. Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior, 6(1), 171–193.

Bertua, C., Anderson, N., & Salgado, J. F. (2005). The predictive validity of cognitive ability tests: A UK meta-analysis. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 78(3), 387–409.

Byington, E., & Felps, W. (2010). Why do IQ scores predict job performance?: An alternative, sociological explanation. Research in Organizational Behavior, 30, 175–202.

Chamorro-Premuzic, T., & Furnham, A. (2010). The Psychology of Personnel Selection. Cambridge University Press.

Hough, L. M., & Oswald, F. L. (2000). Personnel Selection: Looking Toward the Future–Remembering the Past. Annual Review of Psychology, 51(1), 631–664.

Ones, D. S., Dilchert, S., & Viswesvaran, C. (2012). Cognitive Abilities. The Oxford Handbook of Personnel Assessment and Selection.

Sackett, P. R., & Roth, L. (1996). Multi-Stage Selection Strategies: A Monte Carlo Investigation of Effects on Performance and Minority Hiring. Personnel Psychology, 49(3), 549–572.

Verive, J. M., & McDaniel, M. A. (1996). Short-term memory tests in personnel selection: Low adverse impact and high validity. Intelligence, 23(1), 15–32.

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