Education Background & Cognitive Abilities: Is there a correlation?

Let’s imagine you’re deciding whether a candidate is suitable enough to proceed to the interview round. 

What is the very first thing you look at while assessing this candidate? Is it their educational background? Or you would try to evaluate their problem-solving skills based on their past experiences?   

Cognitive abilities (CA) and educational background are both indicators that are often used to screen candidates. Indeed, tons of research has proven that cognitive abilities are effective in forecasting candidates’ future performance (Schmidt & Hunter, 1998 & 2004; Kuncel et al., 2004 & 2014). However, we tend to perceive candidates with higher educational backgrounds to have higher cognitive abilities. 

But is that actually true? 

In this blog, I’ll tell you all about it!

Intelligence & Cognitive abilities: What exactly are they?

What do you think intelligent people are like? Are they more introverted? Or perhaps extroverted? Are they younger or older? More experienced? Perhaps they are bookworms and dislike gaming.

Your answer might be totally different from mine, depending on our perspectives. This debate has never ended since Spearman (1904) first introduced his two-factor theory of intelligence. It indicates that our intelligence is determined from the g factor (general intelligence or general cognitive abilities) and a series of s factors (specific intellectual factors or specific CA that are only needed for specific activities; e.g., mathematical, coding, designing abilities). 

The g factor is commonly believed to be innate, which implies that everyone has different levels of g by the time we’re born.  In contrast, s factors can be acquired by experience and environment across the lifespan.

A refined model by Carroll (1993) proposed a hierarchical structure of our intelligence. It places g at the highest level, followed by primary cognitive abilities (such as memory, visual & auditory perception, processing speed, etc.) and the s factors at the bottom level. 

Carrying out different tasks requires different levels of g with various combinations of s (see the image below). 

Carroll’s model of Cognitive Ability Structure

For example, If we need to solve a complex mathematical calculation, we might need g, numerical CA and logical CA. In the same manner, if we want to solve a problem, we might need g, planning and reasoning skills. The g factor, in this case, represents one’s ability or capacity to learn and acquire new knowledge and skills (Hunter & Schmidt, 1996; Kuncel et al., 2014). 

Moreover, researchers have broadly categorised various specific CA(s) into fluid abilities (Gf; also known as cognitive mechanics) and crystallised abilities (Gc; also known as cognitive pragmatics; Baltes et al., 1999). 

  • Fluid abilities (Gf) refer to the CA that fundamentally rely on cognitive processing, including psychomotor speed, memory, or reasoning. Some might claim that this term is only reserved for reasoning ability, but it can also be used more broadly which consist of the abilities that influence reasoning performance (e.g., processing speed & memory; Lövdén et al., 2020). 
  • Crystallised abilities (Gc) represent CA that primarily shows declarative and procedural knowledge obtained across our lifespan, including vocabulary, literacy, numeracy, languages and all sorts of knowledge (cultural, historical, domain-specific).

Simply put, intelligence can be broadly defined as the ability to initiate (automatically) cognitive processes (such as planning, learning, attention; Hunter, 1986). That might somewhat differ from what you imagine intelligence as. Within the psychology domain, intelligence is not inferred as a genetic potential, but rather as the level of CA developed at the time while being assessed (Hunter & Schmidt, 1996). 

Specifically, If we did an intelligence test in our 20s, the test score would reflect our developed CA at that time. Due to the stability of CA during adulthood, “intelligence” is generally used to describe the level of general CA developed when people reach their adult years. 

(Formal) Education background x Cognitive Abilities

What will you put on your CV after your name? Many choose to show their educational background to capture the attention of recruiters. Given the perceived necessity of education when applying to a job, we spent a fortune to get a degree just to increase the chance of getting our dream jobs. However, research shows that the mismatch rate between degree and job characteristics are surprisingly high. Both positive (e.g., overqualified for a job; Montt, 2017) and negative (e.g., changing job fields; Salas-Velasco, 2021) mismatches should be used as warning signs for us to reconsider whether we should use the educational background as an indication for evaluating the qualification of a candidate.

What type of Cognitive Abilities can we learn through formal education?

During the school days, although there’s a difference of teaching styles among countries, most teachers try to equip us with hard, academic knowledge, such as mathematical formulas, literature, historical facts etc. Be honest with us, are you still using (or even remember) the Sine & Cosine or Pythagorean Theorem for your daily job tasks (unless you are working in a related field)? Related to the concepts we introduced earlier, this knowledge is considered a crystallised ability (Gc). Throughout our education, our Gc has been consistently increasing due to the fact that we read textbooks to enrich our knowledge. 

However, many of us did not “learn” explicitly how to acquire fluid abilities (Gf) in school. For example, teachers often do not teach how to memorise the whole history of the Industrial Revolution. We read it, internalised it and rephrased it in our own words. Maybe one classmate needed more time to memorise and discuss it, while another might have been able to start talking about it after one glance. That shows individual differences in working memory and information processing. Did this happen because one received more education than the other classmate? Apparently not.  

Most studies investigating the relationship between education and CA use IQ tests as the common measure of cognitive performance without looking deeper into education’s specific effect on Gf and Gc (Strenze, 2007; Falch & Sandgren Massih, 2011). In fact, Ritchie and colleagues (2014) demonstrated that education has different levels of association to different specific CA, rather than showing an indirect influence through general intelligence. Specifically, although the quality of school influenced test score of directly taught skills (e.g., Maths and English; Gc), there is no evidence showing that school quality affected performance on tests of Gf (e.g., processing speed, working memory and reasoning,also in Finn et al., 2014). That’s why it is crucial to look at the effect of education slightly differently for Gf and Gc.  

Could a candidates’ educational background tell us how good are they in Cognitive Abilities? 

Undeniably, It is impossible to discuss them completely separately since Gf and Gc are correlated to each other. Still, we would like to shed light on the relation between Gf and (formal) education since soft skills (which are mostly represented by Gf, e.g., communication, problem-solving, leadership, etc.; Smith, 2022) have become important criteria for employers considering the potential of their candidates. 

According to the Investment Theory (Cattell, 1987), everyone has a fixed amount of Gf and we decide how much of our Gf we invest into learning various tasks. Consequently, Gc will represent the learning outcome, moderated by different amounts of motivation and learning opportunities that we have (see image below).

One simple example could be a person deciding to invest their Gf into learning about Chemistry.  They might pursue a degree and become a pharmacist. But maybe they did not have the financial resources to get a university degree so they decided to become an assistant in a pharmacy. As a result, they could also attain some of their desired knowledge in Chemistry. The knowledge gained in school or a real-life setting are both considered Gc and may both have required Gf investment to attain, but from different paths of learning. 

Across our lifespan, we all made choices about where to invest our Gf. Inevitably, the outcome of that investment will be significantly varied and dependent on many factors, so we are unable to (and should not) infer individual levels of CA in people just from their educational background. In real life, unfortunately, whether to attain a formal education is not simply dependent on how much we are interested in a certain domain and how much we decided to invest our Gf into it. A degree is just a paper stating that we have invested our Gf extensively in getting Gc in a certain domain, but it does not mean that we have a higher Gf than our peers, who did not choose to get a degree but invested their Gf into something else. 

Equalture Study: The Correlation between analytical intelligence and educational level


Information about candidates’ highest level of education was collected for 1434 people.  The majority of the candidates had a BSc (661) or MSc (538) degree. Other education levels included secondary education/ high school (63), vocational education (63), associate’s degree (57), post-master (24), and PhD (28). We decided to exclude post-master and PhD from the analysis, as the groups were too small.

Statistical analysis & Results

A one-way ANOVA revealed no significant effect of education on problem-solving ability as measured by the ferry game, F(7,3918) = 1.35, p = .221. The conclusion: There was no significant effect of education on problem-solving ability, i.e. analytical intelligence

boxplot showing no correlation between analyical intelligence and educational level

Here’s what happens when you keep screening candidates on their educational level

There’s actually two things that will happen:

  • You will wrongfully reject candidates with a lower educational level, but a higher GMA/intelligence;
  • And the other way around, you will wrongfully advance candidates with a higher educational level, but a lower GMA /intelligence. 

So, you’re not only shrinking your talent pool but also risking a costly mishire. 

To conclude

Not only should we look at intelligence, but we should also look deeper into the effect of education in fluid (Gf) and crystallized (Gc) cognitive ability. When considering whether to use educational backgrounds as the condition of choosing candidates, we should note that having an education is dependent on a lot of other factors (e.g., finance, parental socio-economics background etc.). Having a better degree doesn’t necessarily mean that we have higher levels of CA.

Thus, educational backgrounds should not be a screening factor used to predict intelligence without an actual measurement of the levels of Gf and Gc you are interested in. Educational background is just a perceived convenient indicator of Gc, but it does not predict Gf and not all of us have chosen to invest in our Gf in the same way. 

Cheers, Jiaying


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