13 October 2021

Cognitive ability tests for employment: all you need to know

The correlation between cognitive abilities and work performance is 84%.
For work experience, it’s 16%. Just saying.

Unfortunately, most hiring decisions are still being made based on someone’s past experiences and achievements, when in reality – neither of these are actual predictors of future job performance. That’s why many recruiters have turned to using cognitive ability tests when assessing candidates. 

In this blog, you will find out:


What are cognitive ability tests

A cognitive ability test is a type of a pre-employment test used to assess and objectively measure a candidate’s cognitive skills. Cognitive assessments do not measure what we think about or what we already know, instead these pre-employment tests focus on finding out how individuals think about certain things and situations.


Top 3 cognitive skills measured during employee screening that are most predictive of future job performance

Skill #1. Attention to detail

Don’t be fooled – it’s more than just simply paying attention to what’s going on. When it comes to any business function properly, attention to detail is of utmost importance. And guess what – it’s all about the cognitive ability each individual has to concentrate on details of certain tasks they’ve been assigned with. 

Especially when hiring for positions that require a lot of concentration and sustained focus over a longer period of time, it’s important that individuals are capable of taking in large quantities of information while simultaneously being able to efficiently filter out irrelevant aspects. 

To explain it in more simple terms – think of things that classify as background noise, such as a clock ticking. Those are things that have the potential to divert our attention, yet most of us are capable of classifying these sounds as background noise and effectively proceeding to do whatever it is that our full attention is meant to go to.

Attention to detail as a cognitive ability is of utmost importance for nearly all jobs out there (because all jobs are about paying attention to the tasks meant to be accomplished). However, there are a few job roles for which this cognitive ability is the most relevant for:

  • Software developers
  • Writers, as well as editors
  • Customer success representatives

Specifically for these roles, making even the tiniest mistakes can leave the biggest consequences. That’s why attention to detail is a must.

Skill #2. Problem solving

Problem solving skills relate to the processes of observing what’s going on in our environment, the ability to identify certain aspects that can be improved or changed and the ability to take actions to implement these ideas.

Why are problem solving skills important when assessing and evaluating potential hires? Because every single workplace and job comes with a set of problems that are inevitable. One way or another, these problems can and will occur eventually. That’s why it’s good to be aware of the problem solving style of each candidate before they get hired. 

For example, people who have a higher problem solving ability are more self-reliant, as they need less help. However, they also tend to take their time when solving problems. People who are more intuitive when it comes to problem solving are more likely to try different solutions (trial-and-error approach), but also might ask for help more. Depending on the team, work setting and type of job, you might prefer one type over another.

In general, problem solving as a cognitive ability is necessary for all job roles (same as attention to detail). Yet, there are a few roles for which the ability more crucial than for others:

  • Customer support
  • Product managers & owners
  • Engineers
  • Sales representatives (read more about how to evaluate and assess Sales candidates here)

Reading tip: We’ve prepared a list of 10 interview questions that can help you determine candidate problem-solving skills!

Skill #3. Cognitive flexibility

Cognitive flexibility determines to what extent we can flexibly adapt our behaviours and thoughts to new and unexpected situations in a constantly changing environment. 

When someone is highly flexible it enables them to adapt to change more quickly and easily. Research by McKinsey has shown that adaptivity is one of the top desired skills employers should be on the lookout for during their hiring rounds. This can be very beneficial within fast-changing work environments, however, at the same time it implies that they can more easily change their course of action and plans, which is not always helpful. 

In contrast, someone who is more habitual when it comes to cognitive flexibility implies that this person likely needs more structure when it comes to completing tasks. In general, being structured will help this person to thrive in routine and more successfully execute a certain plan, however, at the same time it can simultaneously make it more difficult to work in an environment that is dominated by uncertainty and constant change.

Cognitive flexibility as a cognitive ability is important for job roles within:

  • Customer Success teams (read more about how to evaluate and assess CS candidates here)
  • Sales/Business Development
  • Marketing teams

Reading tip: When to hire for cognitive flexibility (and more importantly: when not).


How using cognitive ability tests will improve hiring decisions

Now that you know what cognitive ability tests are, let me tell you how using cognitive ability tests will improve your hiring decisions and overall recruitment process. There are two main ways in which cognitive ability tests for employment can boost your recruitment process: they are better predictors of future job performance; these tests allow you to look beyond what’s written in a resume; and cognitive ability tests help you fight hiring bias.


Better predictor of future job performance

These types of tests focus on measuring someone’s general mental ability. General Cognitive Ability (GCA) is the #1 most important trait determinant of job performance. It has the highest validity and also the lowest application costs. 

Cognitive ability tests measure skills such as ability to learn, learning agility, perceptual speed and accuracy, and many more. And without a doubt these skills are better predictors of future performance than resumes or motivational letters ever could (and will) be. Don’t believe me?

Sadly, as time travel is not yet possible, there is an alternative – looking at the candidate’s potential instead of their formal qualifications. In fact, assessing candidates for skills and potential can help fill open job roles with the best talent out there. Unlike the information provided through traditional assessment methods, using cognitive ability tests for employment allows you to gain insights into the unconscious behavioural and cognitive processes of candidates. 

Not only are these cognitive ability tests more predictive than resumes and cover letters, they also provide a more structured, standardized overview of the candidate in a data-driven way. Cognitive ability tests allow to look beyond what’s written in someone’s resume. They allow you to truly get to know the candidate. After all, previous experiences don’t predict success and fit, whereas someone’s cognitive abilities and personality do.


Fight hiring bias by using cognitive ability tests

Biased recruitment. When we talk about biased recruitment, we tend to focus most on bias arising from a candidate’s demographics – age, gender, race, etc. However, hiring bias is about much more than that. 

Reading tip: 10 types of unconscious hiring bias causing unfair screening.

If you think that hiring bias can only creep in during the interview process, then you couldn’t be more wrong. In fact, bias can already affect your perception of someone just when you take a glance at their resume. 

Debiasing your hiring processes is all about objectifying your hiring decisions. Instead of focusing on someone’s past, cognitive ability tests for employment allow you to focus on things that matter. The cognitive skills, personality and learning ability of candidates. 


Equalture’s cognitive ability tests for employment: gamify the experience

Here at Equalture, we develop neuroscientific games to help companies make better hiring decisions. Our games, focused on measuring cognitive abilities and personality traits, not only assess your candidates, but also your current team. 

Why are games better than traditional cognitive ability assessments? There are four main reasons:

  1. They provided you with data-backed and objective insights that’ll allow you to start hiring for potential.
  2. Gamified cognitive ability tests reveal both conscious and unconscious behaviour.
  3. No room for social desirability bias since candidates often don’t know which traits are measured per game and the only thing they can do is play.
  4. Gamified cognitive ability tests are more immersive. They make a candidate forget that they are assessed, thus reducing feelings of anxiety.

By assessing the current team first, you will get a clear overview of the current representation of your team – so for example, if your team consists of highly flexible people only, or not. This will help you determine what to look for in a next hire. And there you have it – the closest you’ll get to having a crystal ball that will allow you to look into the future and predict how successful someone will be in your teams!


Curious about how you’d do in a cognitive ability test?
Play a game now and find out!


Cheers, Anete