Using Personality and Cognitive Ability to Predict Job Performance: An Empirical Study

By Lowery, Christopher M.; Beadles, N. A., II et al. | International Journal of Management, September 2004 | Go to article overview

Using Personality and Cognitive Ability to Predict Job Performance: An Empirical Study


Lowery, Christopher M., Beadles, N. A., II, Krilowicz, Thomas J., International Journal of Management


The utility of personality variables for selection decisions has long been debated. This paper describes a study which examined the use of these variables in conjunction with measures of ability to predict performance. Consistent with expectations based on previous research, we found that personality interacted with ability in predicting performance. The relationship between personality and performance depends to some extent on a person's level of ability.

At one time, the use of personality variables to predict work performance received scant support. Guion and Cottier's (1965) review concluded that the validity of personality tests for selection purposes was low and an attempt to update this review was abandoned because of the lack of reported use of these measures (Guion, 1987). However, Barrick and Mount's meta-analysis (Barrick and Mount, 1991) seems to have spurred a resurgence of interest in the predictive power of personality variables (see, for example, Barrick, Stewart, Neubert, and Mount, 1998; Salgado, 1997; Neumanand Wright, 1999).

Recently, the influence of cognitive ability on the relationship between personality and performance has been investigated. Previous work has demonstrated the benefit of cognitive ability as a predictor of job performance (Hunter and Hunter, 1984; Ree and Earles, 1992; Vinchur, Schippmann, Switzer, and Roth, 1998), and recent efforts have assessed the effects of the interaction between personality and cognitive ability on work performance. This research has indicated that personality and performance are related, but that the form of this relationship depends to some extent on a person's ability.

Personality and Cognitive Ability

The suggestion of an interaction between cognitive ability and personality arises from a model proposed by Hollenbeck and Whitener (1988). They contended that personality reflects motivation, and, since performance is thought to be a multiplicative function of ability and motivation (i.e., Performance = Motivation X Ability), they argued for the same interactive effects for ability and personality. Several studies have supported this contention (Hollenbeck, Brief, Whitener, and Pauli, 1988; Day and Silverman 1989; O'ReillyandChatman, 1994; Wright Kacmar, McMahan, and Deleeuw, 1995). Wright et al. (1994) found strong support for the moderating effect of cognitive ability in the relationship between personality and performance. They concluded that using personality variables in conjunction with ability tests to improve the predictive value of these variables would hold great promise for the area of selection, if this implication could be further validated. Consequently, they thought there was a need to further examine the moderating role of cognitive ability.

A subsequent effort by Sackett, Grays, and Ellingson (1998) failed to provide validation. In their research, ability-personality interactions could not be detected above chance levels. They suggested power issues and the possibility of Type 1 errors as potential causes for the discrepancies between their investigation and the earlier studies. The purpose of our research was to examine further the moderating role of cognitive ability in the relationship between personality and performance, and to determine whether support for the interactive model evidenced in the earlier studies could be provided.

The personality construct assessed in this study was achievement orientation. Previous research has indicated that an achievement orientation is predictive of performance (Hough, Eaton, Dunnette, Kamp, and McCloy, 1990; Borman, White, Pulakos, and Oppler, 1991; Barrick and Mount, 1991). We expected the personality characteristic of achievement orientation to be linked to performance through the moderating effect of cognitive ability. Achievement orientation should be positively associated with performance for people with high cognitive abilities; however, for people with low cognitive ability, the effect of need for achievement may not be as great. …

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