[IPAC-List] Micro-survey on alternative terms for "cognitive ability"

Blair, Michael Michael.Blair2 at opm.gov
Tue Jun 23 12:39:55 EDT 2020

Joel -

Personally, I try, whenever possible to drill down a level and talk about the abilities, skills, or competencies of interest. For example, reading comprehension, mathematical ability, logical reasoning, spatial reasoning, etc., rather than cognitive ability or GMA. When necessary to talk at high or broad levels, I fall back on the general categories of assessments that have been ingrained in our field by the likes of Schmidt and Hunter (1998). 

With regard to your alternatives, I'd have to select None of the above, if the goal is to find a generic replacement for cognitive ability. Speed of learning is a separate ability, related to 'g' (of course, many would argue everything is 'g'), but not a broad pseudonym. Academic achievement is not a good fit, as it defines what has been done, as opposed to what can be done. I would also argue it is too narrowly focused by the use of the term 'academic' and would put I/Os at odds with Educational Psychologists and educators in general, given how they use the term. Likewise, 'General academic ability' is too narrowly focused, at least in my view. I also see it as potentially carrying even more stigma or negative connotation than cognitive ability.

That being said, I do not have a good alternative general term for cognitive ability, which is why I try to address the topic at the abilities, skills, or competencies of interest. In fact, I don't think a new term for 'cognitive ability' would do much to address the concern that it is holding back progress in developing new employee selection procedures. In my opinion (and many will disagree), what is holding us back is a reluctance to peel back the onion and more narrowly define the competencies of interest in the cognitive domain. Ironically, our search for alternative predictors has led us down this path in the non-cognitive domain and it is not uncommon to see assessment batteries tapping a dozen non-cognitive abilities, judgement/decision-making, the big-five, integrity/honesty, a variety of interpersonal skills, organizational citizenship behavior, etc., along with a single test of logical reasoning to represent the multi-faceted cognitive domain. 

I wish I had an answer. Perhaps my response will stir up a spirited debate in our forum.

Michael D. Blair
Lead Personnel Research Psychologist
United States Office of Personnel Management

P: 202-957-5427 | M: 202-957-5427
Michael.Blair2 at opm.gov | www.opm.gov/HRS

-----Original Message-----
From: IPAC-List <ipac-list-bounces at ipacweb.org> On Behalf Of Joel Wiesen
Sent: Tuesday, June 23, 2020 8:14 AM
To: IPAC-List <IPAC-List at ipacweb.org>
Subject: [IPAC-List] Micro-survey on alternative terms for "cognitive ability"


This email is a micro-survey on several alternative terms for "cognitive ability" as in the phrase, "blacks score 1 s.d. below whites on tests of cognitive ability, on average."

Which of these alternative terms resonates best with you, as psychometricians, for what what is tested by the typical employment test of GMA (general mental ability):

1. Speed of learning

2. General academic ability

3. Academic achievement

4. None of the above

(Reasons for your answer(s) and suggestions of other alternative terms would be welcome.)

Thank you.


P.S. I seek an alternative term is the phrase in quotes above for at least 4 reasons: (a) the phrase is used ubiquitously in the field of employment testing and selection, (b) the phrase can be viewed as insulting and demoralizing, (c) most employment tests of GMA do not measure all major aspects of cognitive ability much less all aspects, and (d) I think the use of the term "cognitive ability" is holding back progress in developing new employee selection procedures.

FYI - The APA Dictionary (2015) defines cognitive ability as follows:
Cognitive ability: the skills involved in performing the tasks associated with perception, learning, memory, understanding, awareness, reasoning, judgment, intuition, and language. (Page 202)

Joel P. Wiesen, Ph.D., Director
Applied Personnel Research
62 Candlewood Road
Scarsdale, NY 10583-6040
(617) 244-8859

Continuing Education website (home study of recent journal articles): https://www.aprtestingservice.com/

Note: This e-mail and any attachments may contain confidential and/or legally privileged information. Please do not forward any contents without permission. If you have received this message in error please destroy all copies, completely remove it from your computer, and notify the sender. Thank you.

IPAC-List at ipacweb.org

More information about the IPAC-List mailing list