What exactly are candidate selection measures measuring?

This post originally appeared on our offspring title, the BPS Occupational Digest, written by Dr Alex Fradera. It's like the main Research Digest but focuses on psychology in the work place.

While we know that modern selection procedures such as ability tests and structured interviews are successful in predicting job performance, it's much less clear how they pull off those predictions. The occupational psychology process – and thus our belief system of how things work - is essentially a) identify what the job needs b) distil this to measurable dimensions c) assess performance on your dimensions. But a recent review article by Martin Kleinman and colleagues suggests that in some cases, we may largely be assessing something else: the “ability to identify criteria”.

The review unpacks a field of research that recognises that people aren't passive when being assessed. Candidates try to squirrel out what they are being asked to do, or even who they are being asked to be, and funnel their energies towards that. When the situation is ambiguous, a so-called “weak” situation, those better at squirrelling – those with high “ability to identify criteria” (ATIC) - will put on the right performance, and those that are worse will put on Peer Gynt for the panto crowd.

Some people are better at guessing what an assessment is measuring than others, so in itself ATIC is a real phenomenon. And the research shows that higher ATIC scores are associated with higher overall assessment performance, and better scores specifically on the dimensions they correctly guess. ATIC clearly has a 'figuring-out' element, so we might suspect its effects are an artefact of it being strongly associated with cognitive ability, itself associated with better performance in many types of assessment. But if anything the evidence works the other way. ATIC has an effect over and above cognitive ability, and it seems possible that cognitive ability buffs assessment scores mainly due to its contribution to the ATIC effect.

In a recent study, ATIC, assessment performance, and candidate job performance were examined within a single selection scenario. Remarkably it found that job performance correlated better with ATIC than it did with the assessment scores themselves. In fact, the relationship between assessment scores and job performance became insignificant after controlling for ATIC. This offers the provocative possibility that the main reason assessments are useful is as a window into ATIC, which the authors consider “the cognitive component of social competence in selection situations”. After all, many modern jobs, particularly managerial ones, depend upon figuring out what a social situation demands of you.

So what to make of this, especially if you are an assessment practitioner? We must be realistic about what we are really assessing, which in no small part is 'figuring out the rules of the game'. If you're unhappy about that, there's a simple way to wipe out the ATIC effect: making the assessed dimensions transparent, turning the weak situation into a strong, unambiguous one. Losing the contamination of ATIC leads to more accurate measures of the individual dimensions you decided were important. But overall your prediction of job performance measures will be weaker, because you've lost the ATIC factor which does genuinely seem to matter. And while no-one is suggesting that it is all that matters in the job, it may be the aspect of work that assessments are best positioned to pick up.

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Kleinmann, M., Ingold, P., Lievens, F., Jansen, A., Melchers, K., and Konig, C. (2011). A different look at why selection procedures work: The role of candidates' ability to identify criteria. Organizational Psychology Review, 1 (2), 128-146 DOI: 10.1177/2041386610387000
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