July 12, 2021

Mark Rader

What is a Cognitive Ability Test

What is a Cognitive Ability Test
Mark Rader

When looking at ways to assess candidates, there are a lot of competing options available. And we mean a lot: skills tests, personality tests, emotional IQ tests, and more.  

But the granddaddy of them all—and the standalone test type proven to be most effective in predicting future candidate performance—is the cognitive ability assessment. 

So what does “cognitive ability” mean, and what exactly are the benefits to using it as a test measure in hiring? Let’s dig in.  

What is cognitive ability?  

Cognitive ability—sometimes referred to as reasoning ability or “g” (short for general intelligence)—describes a person’s capability to learn, adapt, solve problems, and understand instructions. 

In a hiring context, a high level of cognitive ability indicates a strong likelihood of effectiveness and efficiency in these areas and ultimately a greater likelihood of job success. 

Our founder, E.F. Wonderlic, was one of the very first people to understand the value of measuring cognitive ability in the hiring process. 

While most famous for adding a layer of insight to the potential of pro football prospects at the NFL Combine, our test are actually most useful and most used in general business settings, where employees are tackling problems, not people.

How is cognitive ability measured in a pre-employment assessment?  

Cognitive ability is measured by presenting test-takers with many types of questions at varying degrees of difficulty—for example, questions about simple math, basic logic, language comprehension, spatial reasoning, and pattern identification.  

As some researchers have stated, cognitive ability tests help evaluate a person’s capability to take stock of their surroundings and determine the appropriate actions —informally, it’s called “catching on,” “making sense of things,” or “figuring things out.” Specifically, they help answer job-related questions like: 

  • Will this person change their strategy as the situation changes or stick with what’s comfortable?  
  • Will this person be able to anticipate obstacles before they arise?  
  • Can this person see multiple solutions to complicated problems? 

Cognitive ability tests aren’t a measure of one’s level of education; instead, they measure general mental capabilities that apply to everyone, regardless of their background. In other words, cognitive ability tests provide objective information about job candidates that’s not easily measured in selection methods like interviews, reference checks, background checks, and any self-reporting of educational or job experience.  

Used as part of the typical resume review and interview process, assessments can provide a more holistic perspective of a person’s potential to succeed in any job. 

 Because we know cognitive ability is fairly innate and stable across individuals, a measure of this kind provides the opportunity to objectively identify those that are more likely to be successful. Giving all applicants an even playing field at the start of the hiring process can help identify those “diamonds in the rough” that have the potential to be successful but may have been passed over using another screen-out method.” 

—Julia Markus, Analyst at Wonderlic

How do cognitive ability assessments compare with other common hiring tests as a predictor of future employee performance? 

Cognitive ability testing is recognized as the best single predictor of future job performance; this conclusion has been repeatedly confirmed over the past 100 years, most definitely in a 1998 study by Schmidt and Hunter and a 2016 follow-up paper by Schmidt, Oh & Shaffer.  

Cognitive ability accounts for up to 42% of the variation in job performance, as compared to reference checks which only account for approximately 7%, or job experience which accounts for less than 2%. Given this context, reference checks and job experience are less useful to employers when trying to differentiate between applicants likely to be high or low performers.  

Adding personality and motivation test data to cognitive ability test data has been shown to increase the overall validity of the test. But when used as the primary measure, both also underperform cognitive ability as an indicator of job-specific potential.  

The results from cognitive ability tests also have a longer shelf life than the results of skills tests. Cognitive ability tests are designed to reflect core traits and help predict short-term and long-term job performance, whereas skills tests are generally designed only to reflect the acquired knowledge a candidate brings to the table right now.  

Considering that the current half-life of a learned skill is estimated to be only five years, compared with an estimated 12-15 years in the 1970s, a candidate’s existing skill set is becoming increasingly less important than their ability to take on new skills. 

What are some of the business benefits of using cognitive ability tests?  

When you assess cognitive ability, you’re not just looking at whether a candidate can merely do the job, but whether they can excel in the job. Here are three of the benefits that kind of insight can deliver to your company.  

They help you make better hiring decisions at all levels 

Measuring cognitive ability provides you with an objective way to differentiate between every kind of candidate—entry-level, managers, and executives. HR professionals who deal with a high volume of applications use the results to quickly screen out candidates who aren’t a good fit, and to help differentiate between stronger candidates later in the hiring process.  

“WonScore truly guides us so we know a lot about what we are getting which we cannot do trusting our gut feeling. Most importantly, I find the WonScore to be very accurate just like their paper instruments (Wonderlic) that I began using in 1990. A very worthwhile investment from my point of view.”

—Tom C., Wonderlic Customer

They can help you find people who can adjust to the big technological changes ahead 

By 2030, it’s predicted that up to one-third of U.S. jobs could be phased out because of advances in artificial intelligence and automation. In this future state, “soft skills” like conflict resolution, leadership, dependability, flexibility, and teamwork—which AI won’t be able to easily replicate—will be even more highly valued than they are now. And as new industries and jobs emerge as a result of new technological advances, companies will need workers with the ability to learn new skills quickly to stay competitive.  

Cognitive ability tests can help HR pros peel back the layers to determine how strong an applicant is in these crucial core competencies. 

“While AI has made major strides toward replicating the efficacy of human intelligence in executing certain tasks, there are still major limitations. In particular, AI programs are typically only capable of ‘specialized’ intelligence, meaning they can solve only one problem, and execute only one task at a time. Often, they can be rigid, and unable to respond to any changes in input, or perform any ‘thinking’ outside of their prescribed programming.

Humans, however, possess ‘generalized intelligence,’ with the kind of problem solving, abstract thinking and critical judgement that will continue to be important in business. Human judgement will be relevant, if not in every task, then certainly throughout every level across all sectors.” 

—From “How AI Will Impact the Future of Work and Life,”Forbes, March 2021

They can help you reduce churn and boost productivity  

Because cognitive ability tests are such a strong predictor of job-specific success, companies that use them reduce the risk of ill-equipped new hires leaving and increase their chances of building a workforce of highly productive employees whose contributions improve their bottom line.

“We have all our employees and candidates take the Wonderlic. It has been a great tool to qualify candidates. Since we’ve been using the Wonderlic, our success rates in our hiring have been excellent.” 

—Paul M., Wonderlic Customer

To learn more about the power of cognitive ability tests and cognitive-ability-driven multi-measure hiring assessments sign up for a Wonderlic Select demo here.  

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