Too Intelligent for the Job? the Validity of Upper-Limit Cognitive Ability Test Scores in Selection

By Moustafa, Karen South; Miller, Thomas R. | SAM Advanced Management Journal, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

Too Intelligent for the Job? the Validity of Upper-Limit Cognitive Ability Test Scores in Selection


Moustafa, Karen South, Miller, Thomas R., SAM Advanced Management Journal


Employees must often evaluate large pools of applicants. Given the high costs associated with new hires that don't work out, employers may seek to narrow applicant pools. Since cognitive ability is an excellent predictor of future job success, low limits on such tests have been used to eliminate applicants. Now upper-limit scores are also being used on the theory that over-qualified candidates may not be satisfactory. This practice survived a legal challenge in 1999, but managers should carefully consider the short-and long-term pros and cons before ruling out potentially over-qualified applicants.

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Selection tests have been used for many years to predict the future performance of job applicants. It is essential to select the best person for the job, not only to assure a high probability of success on the job, but also to reduce the likelihood of poor placement that can result in turnover, a significant cost to the organization. Therefore, the organization seeks to employ someone able to perform the tasks required who can also be retained for a reasonable period of time to make its investment in recruiting and training profitable.

The theoretical underpinning of cognitive ability as a predictor of performance stronger than other predictors encompasses 90 years of research (Brody, 1992; Jensen, 1986). Cognitive ability tests have proved to be one of the best and most popular predictors of learning on the job and job performance (Schmidt and Hunter, 1998). Often users of a cognitive ability test establish a lower-limit score below which an applicant's chance of successfully performing a given job is considered less likely. In addition, some organizations use an upper-limit score above which an individual's chance of matching job requirements is assumed to be unlikely (Wonderlic, 1999). In this manner, only those applicants whose scores fail within the hiring range are considered further for employment.

The purpose of this paper is to examine the rationale and validity of limiting scores, particularly upper-limit scores, on cognitive ability tests used in selection. Within this context, we will examine the research on selection and cognitive ability tests, issues of validity and reliability, and professional practice.

Selection Testing

Cognition, often a synonym for "intelligence," is a general term used to refer to the abilities involved in learning and problem solving, using words and symbols (Behling, 1998). It is the individual's collection of knowledge and the facility with which he or she uses it (Kanfer and Ackerman, 1989). Good employment decisions are critical to the achievement of organizational objectives, and personnel testing, defined by Landy and Trumbo (1976) as the "systematic application of tests for the purpose of making a personnel decision" (p. 47), is a step toward meeting these objectives.

Cognitive ability, also called general mental ability, is one of the best predictors of future performance on the job (Hunter and Hunter, 1984; Thorndike, 1986; Jensen, 1986; Hunter, 1986; Campbell, 1990). Figure 1 shows Behling's (1998) theoretical model that illustrates how cognitive ability affects job performance.

Ghiselli and Brown (1955) were able to correlate cognitive ability and job performance with a validity correlation coefficient (or r) of. 37. Further work by Hunter and Hunter (1984) found a validity correlation coefficient average of .47 between cognitive ability and job performance, which was higher than any other single predictor of performance. Some authors stated that this was due, in part, to the high validity of cognitive ability for predicting job-related learning (Hunter and Hunter, 1984; Schmidt, Hunter and Outerbridge, 1986; Schmidt and Hunter, 1992). Furthermore, Ree and Earles (1992) found that cognitive ability was strongly correlated with training success (r = .76), supporting the work of others (Hunter and Hunter, 1984; Hunter, 1986). …

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