Specific Cognitive Abilities Can Benefit Selection Programs

Cognitive Abilities

Organizations oftentimes use specific cognitive abilities to help select people for jobs. Selection itself is important because organizations can sometimes waste millions of dollars in training people who don’t have the right aptitude, aren’t motivated, or who don’t fit minimum requirements for the job. When an organization selects employees, it often uses an assessment process to try and find the “right people.” This assessment often involves tests of general cognitive ability, which is basically what we’d consider overall intelligence. What if organizations could fine tune these processes so that they were more successful in identifying those who may succeed in a training context or in a job? Recent research findings offer a possible way to do this.


Many researchers adhere to the view that intelligence is made up of a single “general” factor, also called general mental ability. This view explains that there is an underlying single-dimension of mental ability that underlies numerous different types of learning and performance abilities. However, researchers debate about whether including specific abilities of intelligence can provide just a little bit of extra predictive power for organizations. Some believe that these specific abilities can help predict beyond what general mental ability alone can offer when it comes to selecting individuals for the job.



The researchers investigated the importance of using general mental ability and also specific abilities in a training context, specifically military personnel learning a foreign language. The researchers examined the predictive ability of general mental ability and the specific abilities within the trainee group by using different approaches to measuring cognitive ability. Results showed that if the specific mental abilities of the applicants aligned with what was being assessed, then using the specific abilities would add predictive value for the organization. For example, in testing learning of a foreign language, the specific ability of foreign language aptitude would be more useful than numerical ability.



These findings challenge many assessment and selection practices within hiring and training. In some cases, testing for general mental ability may be sufficient, but in other cases, managers should not underestimate the role that specific abilities may play in helping organizations predict who will succeed at training and on the job. This would require testing for specific abilities that are either closely aligned with job responsibilities, or are a requirement in a training program. Specific abilities should not be used when these responsibilities are not clearly defined or if there is a mismatch with actual job requirements.

When specific abilities match what is needed for either training or job success, then specific abilities can provide extra predictive power over merely assessing general intelligence in candidates. It is important to note that even a small incremental advantage in prediction for large selection programs could have a profound influence on return on investment figures.