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Standing on the Shoulders of Psychology Giants


Standing on the Shoulders of Psychology Giants
August 10, 2014, 8:00:00 PM EDT   By Mike Russiello

Isaac Newton once said:

"If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants."

graphic of people standing on shoulders Here at HR Avatar, we feel the same way, though our 'giants' are psychologists, rather than physicists. During more than a century of work by psychologist researchers across the globe, the body of knowledge in the field of psychology has reached critical mass, enabling companies like us to apply derived principles for the benefit of organizations of all types and sizes. We thought we'd acknowledge this accumulated effort by describing the nature of the challenge, some key studies that helped put it all together, and the principles that have emerged.

Psychology is a tough science if you're looking for a magic formula

Psychology is a science that has no absolute truths or laws. There are no cookie-cutter formulas, like you'd find in a 'hard science' like physics or chemistry.

If there's one thing psychological research has revealed, it's that we have a long way to go before we truly understand how people think and what makes a person behave the way he or she does on any given day. The problem, of course, is that every person, and every situation, is at least somewhat unique, and the results of different research studies are almost never the same. Predicting exactly how a person might act in a specific situation is all but impossible.

Empirical studies are the psychologist's bread and butter

Since specific formulas to predict specific actions are out of reach, psychologists must often perform empirical studies in which traits or attributes associated with people are measured and correlated with independently measured behaviors to see if one predicts the other, at least in general terms. An empirical study is one in which observed data are collected and analyzed.

Industrial organizational psychologists study human behavior in the workplace

A sub-discipline of psychology known as Industrial-Organizational Psychology (IO), studies human behavior within the world of work. IO psychologists (IOs) seek to apply what is known within their field to help organizations improve their overall performance and meet their goals.

Many IOs specialize in measuring a person's traits or attributes through tests and relating these measurements to job performance. For example, an IO psychologist might conduct a study by giving a mental agility test to 1,000 manufacturing employees, and then compare each individual's test scores with their productivity on the assembly line. If the paired values are correlated to some degree, we can say there is a relationship between the two and one can be used to 'predict' the other, at least to some extent. The test can then be used when evaluating job applicants to select those that should achieve the highest productivity.

The results of studies like the one described above always vary - just as human behavior varies. For many years it was felt that this variation was large enough such that a preliminary study should be performed before using any test, no matter how well established it was, or how many studies had already been performed with it, for a new job. Of course, in today's cost conscious and fast-paced environment, performing a study for every different job in every different company is often impractical, particularly for small and medium-sized organizations.

Meta analysis

After literally thousands of research studies (in some cases), several themes have emerged from the body of research that are useful to hiring decision makers. To quantify and lend authority to these themes, psychologists use a technique called meta-analysis.

Meta-analysis is the process of extracting conclusions by analyzing a large number of similar studies. Over the past few decades, this approach has yielded several important themes, which we've formalized into principles that can be applied to real-world situations.

Key principles that have emerged through meta-analysis

Principle 1: Cognitive Ability is a strong predictor of job performance in virtually all jobs

Within HR Avatar assessments, cognitive factors, such as Attention to Detail, and Analytical Thinking, are heavily weighted as a result of this principle. These traits are measured largely within the simulation component of each HR Avatar assessment. Measuring cognitive factors within a job-related context (via simulation) is a groundbreaking innovation compared to legacy tests, which typically present a series of math problems to the test taker.

In a series of published papers beginning in the early 1980's, renowned psychologists Frank L. Schmidt and John Hunter have solidified the notion that cognitive ability, which they refer to as General Mental Ability (GMA), is a solid predictor of performance in virtually all occupations, including low-level positions. In a 1983 paper (view it here), citing their own meta-analysis of over 1,000 studies, Schmidt and Hunter conclude that:

"Meta-analysis has shown that cognitive abilities predict performance in all jobs."

They then go on to indicate that the relationship between cognitive ability and performance is linear, and applies to both minority and majority job applicants. They also show that cognitive ability is significantly more powerful as a predictor than other commonly measured traits, such as personality factors.

In their 2004 paper entitled "General Mental Ability in the World of Work: Occupational Attainment and Job Performance," (view it here) Schmidt and Hunter show that GMA is a valid predictor of job performance for jobs of all complexity levels, though the degree to which it is predictive increases with job complexity.

Principle 2: Among personality factors, conscientiousness is the strongest predictor of future job performance.

During the past 30 years, the Big Five Personality model has become widely accepted. This model identifies five primary personality factors: conscientiousness, emotional stability, openness to ideas, aggreableness, and extraversion. HR Avatar tests each measure 8-10 different personality factors, depending on the job title. Each HR Avatar factor belongs to one of the primary Big 5 factors.

Conscientiousness can be defined as "A tendency to be organized and dependable, show self-discipline, act dutifully, aim for achievement, and prefer planned rather than spontaneous behavior." (view definition)

Numerous studies have examined the relationships between Big 5 factors and job performance. A landmark study entitled "The Big Five Personality Dimensions and Job Performance: A Meta-Analysis" (view it here) was published by Murray Barrick and Michael Mount of the University of Iowa in Personnel Psychology in 1991. Their most significant finding was that conscientiousness "was found to be a consistently valid predictor for all occupational groups studied and for all criterion types." Further, they found that conscientiousness was relatively independent of measures of cognitive ability, indicating that the two sets of measurements complement each other during personnel selection.

Since the 1991 study described above, numerous meta-analysis studies have confirmed Barrick and Mount's conclusion. A recent example is a study entitled "The Validity of Conscientiousness for Predicting Job Performance: A meta-analytic test of two hypotheses" by Jonathan Shaffer and Bennet Postlethwaite of West Texas A&M and Pepperdine Universities, published in the International Journal of Selection and Assessment in 2013 (view it here). This study asked whether the validity of conscientiousness for predicting performance would decrease as jobs become more structured. The results showed that this this was not the case, and conscientiousness remained a strong predictor of job performance even for the most routine jobs.

Because of this principle, conscientiousness-related personality factors are weighted somewhat higher than other personality factors in HR Avatar assessments when calculating an overall score.

It's worth noting that several other Big Five factors have been found to impact job performance in various conditions, though never as strongly as conscientiousness. For example, extraversion and aggreableness have been found to be predictive in jobs that require a significant amount of interpersonal contact.

Principle 3: Theme 3: Past behaviors tend to predict future behaviors.

We all have habits. Some good, some not so good. Psychologists have learned that frequency of past behavior is a standard indicator of habit strength. The more we do something in the past, the more likely we will do it again in the future.

The relationship between past and future behaviors was explored in a meta-analysis entitled "Habit and Intention in Everyday Life: The Multiple Processes by Which Past Behavior Predicts Future Behavior," by Judith Ouellette of SUNY Cortland and Wendy Wood of Texas A&M, published in the Psychological Bulleting in 1998 (view it here) . In this paper, the authors seek to understand the connection between habits and future behaviors, in light of several different variables, such as automaticity and intentions. This and other analyses show that while past behaviors do influence the likelihood of similar behaviors in the future, the degree to which these are predicted depends on many factors, including distance in the past, current intentions, frequency of past behavior patterns, and current situational conditions. Often, this requires some interpretation by the hiring manager when performing personnel selection.

HR Avatar incorporates this principle in two ways. First, we include a behavioral history inventory in most tests. The behavioral history inventory is designed to highlight candidates with a higher than average risk of counter-productive work behaviors, short tenure (turnover), or poor performance. Second, we include behavioral interview questions in our score report tailored to the test-taker's score in each scale. These questions typically probe past behaviors to help the interviewer gain a better perspective on how the candidate may respond to similar conditions in the future.


In the field of psychology there are no set laws or formulas waiting to be applied to real-world situations. Instead, applications of psychology have traditionally been linked to theory through largely empirical studies. However, over the past decades, several principles have emerged through the process of meta-analysis:

  1. Cognitive Ability is a strong predictor of job performance in virtually all jobs.
  2. Among personality factors, conscientiousness is the strongest predictor of future job performance.
  3. Past behaviors tend to predict future behaviors.

Through these principles, HR Avatar passes on the accumulated knowledge of the field to customers using our tests to hire more effectively. We'd like to thank the legions of psychologists who have painstakingly conducted and published the research that enabled these principles to emerge. You are truly giants!

For more information about HR Avatar's tests, please review our testing science description.

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