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Cognitive Ability Tests

Cognitive ability tests assess abilities involved in thinking (e.g., reasoning, perception, memory, verbal and mathematical ability, and problem solving). Such tests pose questions designed to estimate applicants' potential to use mental processes to solve work-related problems or to acquire new job knowledge.

Traditionally, the general trait measured by cognitive ability tests is called "intelligence" or "general mental ability." However, an intelligence test often includes various item types which measure different and more specific mental factors often referred to as "specific mental abilities." Examples of such items include arithmetic computations, verbal analogies, reading comprehension, number series completion, and spatial relations (i.e., visualizing objects in three-dimensional space).

Some cognitive ability tests sum up the correct answers to all of the items to obtain an overall score that represents a measure of general mental ability. If an individual score is computed for each of the specific types of abilities (e.g., numeric, verbal, reasoning), then the resulting scores represent measures of the specific mental abilities.

Traditional cognitive tests are well-standardized, contain items reliably scored, and can be administered to large groups of people at one time. Examples of item formats include multiple choice, sentence completion, short answer, or true-false. Many professionally developed cognitive tests are available commercially and may be considered when there is no significant need to develop a test that refers specifically to the particular job or organization.


  • Validity - Tests of general cognitive ability are good predictors of job performance and training success for a wide variety of jobs (i.e., they have a high degree of criterion-related validity); The more complex the job or training demands, the better these tests work; Other predictors may add only small amounts of incremental validity over cognitive tests
  • Face Validity/Applicant Reactions - Tests developed to refer explicitly to specific jobs or types of jobs within the hiring organization may be viewed as more highly related to the job (i.e., high face validity) than commercially developed tests
  • Administration Method - Can be administered via paper and pencil or electronically
  • Subgroup Differences - Cognitive ability tests typically produce racial and ethnic differences larger than other valid predictors of job performance such as biodata, personality tests, and structured interviews; The use of other assessment methods (e.g., interviews, biodata instruments) in combination with cognitive ability tests is recommended to lower any potential adverse impact
  • Development Costs - Cost of purchasing a cognitive test is typically less expensive than developing a customized test
  • Administration Costs - Generally inexpensive, requires few resources for administration, and does not require skilled administrators
  • Utility/ROI - High return on investment if you need applicants who possess particular cognitive abilities or have high potential to acquire job knowledge or benefit from training; Cost effectiveness of developing own test over purchasing a commercial test is lower when face validity is not an issue
  • Common Uses - Best used for jobs requiring particular cognitive abilities for effective job performance and for more complex jobs


(See Section VI for a summary of each article)

Hunter, J. E. (1986). Cognitive ability, cognitive aptitude, job knowledge, and job performance. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 29(3), 340-362.

Murphy, K. R., Cronin, B. E., & Tam, A. P. (2003). Controversy and consensus regarding the use of cognitive ability testing in organizations. Journal of Applied Psychology, 88(4), 660-671.

Outtz, J. L. (2002). The role of cognitive ability tests in employment selection. Human Performance, 15(1-2), 161-172.

Ree, M. J., Earles, J. A., & Teachout, M. S. (1994). Predicting job performance: Not much more than g. Journal of Applied Psychology, 79(4), 518-524.

Schmidt, F. L., & Hunter, J. (2004). General mental ability in the world of work: Occupational attainment and job performance. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 86(1), 162-173.

The Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP) website contains information on Cognitive Ability Tests.

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