Intuition vs. Science: The Battle Rages On!

Topic: Assessment, Selection, Staffing
Publication: Industrial and Org. Psychology: Perspectives on Science and Practice
Article: Stubborn reliance on intuition and subjectivity in employee selection.
Blogger: Benjamin Granger

How do typical organizations make hiring decisions? More specifically, do employers tend to prefer selection decision aids supported by research, or do they tend to prefer the use of expert intuition?

So the next question is, do these methods mentioned above really work?  It’s difficult to say, but many practitioners would argue that THEIR way of doing things is the RIGHT way to do it! The bottom line here is that although organizations have their own ways of selecting employees, the methods they utilize are often not supported by research. In fact, many organizational researchers would cringe at the thought of “selection experts” or “headhunters.” Why? Because for the last 100 years, researchers in personnel selection have gone to great lengths to develop and validate employee selectiondecision aids that are now known to be MUCH more effective than the more popular methods (i.e., unstructured interviews).

In a recent article addressing this disparity, Scott Highhouse (2008) discusses several reasons why
organizations tend to neglect research-based selection decision aids that have been shown to predict job performance (e.g., cognitive ability measures, structured interviews, etc.). Highhouse goes so far as to say that the greatest failure of Industrial and Organizational Psychology “has been the inability to convince employers to use [decision aids]” (p. 333).

Highhouse presents two primary reasons why employers tend to neglect well research-based decision aids:

(1) Belief that it is possible to achieve near-perfect precision in selecting employees.

(2) Belief that intuition can be improved with experience.

According to Highhouse, employers must understand that although near-perfect prediction is theoretically possible, it does not make much sense practically!

Seriously, how can anyone (even an experienced selection expert) pinpoint an individual’s future performance level given the innumerable determinants of human behavior? Let’s not fool ourselves!

On the other hand, why should experienced practitioners listen to the folks in the Ivory Towers? They don’t know anything about practitioners’ unique organizations, right?

The fact is that study after study has shown that the decision aids touted by selection researchers (i.e., cognitive ability tests, structured interviews) are MUCH better at predicting jobperformance than those commonly accepted by organizations (i.e., experienced selector’s intuition, unstructured interviews).  And this goes for many different job types and levels.

So, in the realm of employee selection the gap between research and practice remains.  But this is not the end of the story! There may be easy and useful ways to better communicate the value of research based selection decision aids to employers. Moreover, not everyone would agree with Highhouse’s arguments! Do most organizations REALLY neglect decision aids? Are there other reasons why some employers neglect them besides those pointed out by Highhouse? I will leave you hanging for now, as these discussions are the topic of another article.

S. (2008). Stubborn reliance on intuition and subjectivity in employee selection. Industrial and Organizational Psychology Perspectives on Science and Practice, 1(3), 333-342.