Bryan Caplan  

The Effect of Intelligence on Job Performance is Intuitive

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From Schmidt and Hunter, "General Mental Ability in the World of World" (2004, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology):
Why Is GMA [General Mental Ability] So Important for Job Performance?

It can be difficult for people to accept facts and findings they do not like if they see no reason why the findings should or could be true. When Alfred Weggner advanced the theory of plate tectonics early in the 20th century, geologists could think of no means by
which continents or continental plates could move around. Not knowing of any plausible mechanism or explanation for the movement of continents, they found Weggner's theory implausible and rejected it. Many people have had the same reaction to the empirical
findings showing the GMA is highly predictive of job performance. The finding does not seem plausible to them because they cannot think of a reason why such a strong relationship should exist. In fact, their intuition may tell them that personality and other non-cognitive traits are more important than GMA (Hunter & Schmidt, 1996). However, as in the case of plate tectonics theory, there is an explanation. Causal analyses of the determinants of job performance show that the major effect of GMA is on the acquisition of job knowledge: People who are higher in GMA acquire more job knowledge and acquire it faster. The amount of job-related knowledge required on even less complex jobs is much greater than is generally realized. Higher levels of job knowledge lead to higher levels of job performance. Viewed negatively, not knowing what one should be doing--or even not knowing all that one should about what one should be doing--is detrimental to job performance. In addition, knowing what one should be doing and how to do it depends strongly on GMA.
P.S. Basic economics is intuitive, too.



COMMENTS (10 to date)
Glen S. McGhee writes:

Well, only if you have a job first. But it also means you can think of ways to screw up that no one has thought of before.

As Lauren Rivera shows in her papers on the culture of hiring, there are many ways to think about job performance, and hiring as cultural matching definitely needs to be considered as well if you want a full view.

There is no reason for (positive) "job performance" to be tied to intelligence -- unless you assume many, many things. Perhaps these very assumptions are what make it so "intuitive."

DougT writes:

Wait: is this saying that smarter people make better employees? Well duh! I guess the counter-factual would be most University faculties. But wait: they're scholars, not employees. Until they strike.

MingoV writes:

Intelligence correlates strongly with three functions: speed of processing information, ability to understand complex information, and the ability to synthesize new ideas from existing information. These factors easily explain why intelligent people are more productive and effective.

@DougT: I don't equate PhD's in a wide variety of fields with high intelligence. A slightly above average person can acquire a PhD in a Mickey Mouse major. Also, even intelligent people can act stupidly when their political views, religious views, or philosophies short-circuit their intellect.

Glen S. McGhee writes:

I agree that: "Intelligence correlates strongly with three functions: speed of processing information, ability to understand complex information, and the ability to synthesize new ideas from existing information."

But then comes the nonsequitur: "These factors easily explain why intelligent people are more productive and effective." These are almost certainly organizationally constrained -- in fact, the modern design of organizational life dictates that it be: we live and work in bureaucracies that seek to minimize discretion.

Alex Godofsky writes:

Why did the abstract waste so much time with the "sometimes people didn't believe things that later turned out to be true; people don't believe this thing, therefore clearly it must be true" fallacy?

Tracy W writes:

It can be difficult for people to accept facts and findings they do not like if they see no reason why the findings should or could be true.

This is quite sensible. If you see a magician's performance, and you can't figure out how one of the tricks is done, should you assume that you're totally wrong about the relevant law of nature, or should you seriously consider the possibility that the magician might be good at their job?

Similarly with empirical results in the sciences. Except there you have to consider the possibility that the scientist might be incompetent at their job. It's notoriously easy to appear to break the laws of thermodynamics by using DC meters to measure AC power.

Stefano writes:

Can GMA be learned/acquired/improved ?

If so, that would explain the (relative) success of liberal arts graduates, who learned no skill helpful in their successive job. Perhaps they learned "how to learn".

Or perhaps, the liberal arts degree is a signal that one has got the learning ability to begin with.

Mike H writes:
Why did the abstract waste so much time with the "sometimes people didn't believe things that later turned out to be true; people don't believe this thing, therefore clearly it must be true" fallacy?

I think it was just an analogy to get people looking for the pattern. It wasn't used to justify the result, just to show a previous example of what they believe is occurring with GMA.

Mark V Anderson writes:

I have certainly found intelligence to be the most important factor in my personal experience in hiring Accounting Clerks (I probably hired about a dozen over the period from the mid 80's to the mid '90's). I always gave them a math test, for which there was a pretty good separation between those who did well and those who did poorly.

At first I emphasized their social skills as much as their test scores, because a good part of their success on the job related to interpersonal relations. But I finally realized that if I hired smart clerks that the social skills didn't matter so much. The smart clerks learned fast, including social skills when needed. The smart but introverted ones may not have shone at a party, but they were able to do what was necessary in the business environment. High intelligence gives one an edge in almost any task.

Perhaps general intelligence wouldn't have been sufficient in a field that takes extremely high social skills such as in sales, but for task oriented positions an employer can't go too wrong if they just hire the most intelligent of the candidates.

Glen S. McGhee writes:

Job performance is an outcome, not an independent variable. It is produced by situational factors, including, most importantly, the economy.

A paint salesman that I know was caught in the downturn, and then clobbered by the oil spill (new construction ceased). He was finally let go, as were his manager, and the manager after that, due to poor job performance. It had nothing to do with him or them; people simply stopped buying paint.

No sense in sampling on a dependent variable.

Lastly, this argument (intelligence/job performance) was at the root of the success of eugenics, since this is the key point of Galton that social progressives relied on. Strange, then, to see it turning up here, on this blog.

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