Cognitive Science Can Be Career Damaging

I have argued that the identification of a casual and biological link between personality and behaviour has ramifications for society. I have also noted how difficult it is for people to deal with any degree of determinism in the psychological sciences.

As most I/O Psychologists know cognitive ability is one of the most researched and valid predictors of job performance. The average correlation coefficient for cognitive ability and job performance is in the area of 0.5-0.6 (e.g. Schmidt and Hunter, 1998). This is supported in a more recent British journal, the abstract of which is quoted below:

Bertua, C., Anderson, N., and Salgado, J.F. (2005 – September) The predictive validity of cognitive ability tests: A UK meta-analysis. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 78(3), 387-410.


A meta-analysis on the validity of tests of general mental ability (GMA) and specific cognitive abilities for predicting job performance and training success in the UK was conducted. An extensive literature search resulted in a database of 283 independent samples with job performance as the criterion (N = 13,262), and 223 with training success as the criterion (N = 75,311). Primary studies were also coded by occupational group, resulting in seven main groups (clerical, engineer, professional, driver, operator, manager, and sales), and by type of specific ability test (verbal, numerical, perceptual, and spatial). Results indicate that GMA and specific ability tests are valid predictors of both job performance and training success, with operational validities in the magnitude of 0 .5-0.6. Minor differences between these UK findings and previous US meta-analyses are reported. As expected, operational validities were moderated by occupational group, with occupational families possessing greater job complexity demonstrating higher operational validities between cognitive tests and job performance and training success. Implications for the practical use of tests of GMA and specific cognitive abilities in the context of UK selection practices are discussed in the conclusion.

How much of this ability is genetic, I would not know. This question interests me less than the question of how you help people to obtain a performance level to the best of their ability. The brain is very malleable and despite limitations set by genetics, the variation for performance inside those limitations is huge.

The fact remains that discussing pre-determined cognitive ability as a societal limitation is very dangerous area to tread. Many famous careers have been ruined, or at least maligned, by getting into this debate. Many psychologists have had their ethics questioned for even asking the question. Perhaps none quite as public in recent times as the outcry against Nobel-prize winner James Watson. Here is an article from the Independent as a reminder to those who may forget that cognitive determinism, even the mention of which is an area that is socially very charged and illustrative of the problems of any degree of determinism for Psychology should it exist.

Anger at scientist’s ‘whites more intelligent than blacks’ comment, Thursday October 18, 2007, By Cahal Milmo

“One of the world’s most eminent scientists was embroiled in an extraordinary row last night after he claimed that black people were less intelligent than white people and the idea that “equal powers of reason” were shared across racial groups was a delusion. James Watson, a Nobel Prize winner for his part in the unravelling of DNA who now runs one of America’s leading scientific research institutions, drew widespread condemnation for comments he made before his arrival in Britain for a speaking tour at venues including the Science Museum in London”. – The Independent

The 79-year-old geneticist reopened the explosive debate about race and science in a newspaper interview in which he said Western policies towards African countries were wrongly based on an assumption that black people were as clever as their white counterparts when “testing” suggested the contrary. He claimed genes responsible for creating differences in human intelligence could be found within a decade.

The newly formed Equality and Human Rights Commission, successor to the Commission for Racial Equality, said it was studying Dr Watson’s remarks “in full”. Dr Watson told the Sunday Times that he was “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa” because “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours whereas all the testing says not really”. He said there was a natural desire that all human beings should be equal but “people who have to deal with black employees find this not true”.

His views are also reflected in a book published next week, in which he writes: “There is no firm reason to anticipate that the intellectual capacities of peoples geographically separated in their evolution should prove to have evolved identically. Our wanting to reserve equal powers of reason as some universal heritage of humanity will not be enough to make it so.”

Dr Watson arrives in Britain this week for a speaking tour to publicise his latest book, Avoid Boring People: Lessons from a Life in Science. Among his first engagements is a speech to an audience at the Science Museum organised by the Dana Centre, which held a discussion last night on the history of scientific racism. Critics of Dr Watson said there should be a robust response to his views across the spheres of politics and science.

Keith Vaz, the Labour chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, said: “It is sad to see a scientist of such achievement making such baseless, unscientific and extremely offensive comments. I am sure the scientific community will roundly reject what appear to be Dr Watson’s personal prejudices. These comments serve as a reminder of the attitudes which can still exist at the highest professional levels.”

The American scientist earned a place in the history of great scientific breakthroughs of the 20th century when he worked at the University of Cambridge in the 1950s and 1960s and formed part of the team which discovered the structure of DNA. He shared the 1962 Nobel Prize for medicine with his British colleague Francis Crick and New Zealand-born Maurice Wilkins. Anti-racism campaigners called for Dr Watson’s remarks to be looked at in the context of racial hatred laws. A spokesman for the 1990 Trust, a black human rights group, said: “It is astonishing that a man of such distinction should make comments that seem to perpetuate racism in this way.”


Efforts to prove the superiority or inferiority of different races have a long and undistinguished history, from the justifications of slavery to the eugenic policies of Nazi Germany. Modern studies on race and intelligence have continued to create controversy.  In 1994, a dispute erupted over the best-selling book The Bell Curve, by Charles Murray and Richard Hermstein, which argued that there were IQ differences between races that were at least partly genetic and that welfare and other polices were diluting the intelligence of the population by inadvertently encouraging the “wrong” women (with low IQs) to have babies.

In 2002, Richard Lynn, a professor of psychology at the University of Ulster, stoked the fire with the publication of his book IQ and the Wealth of Nations, written with Tatu Vanhanen, emeritus professor of political science at the University of Tampere, Finland.  Arthur Jensen, a former professor of educational psychology at the University of Berkeley, California, published The g Factor: The Science of Mental Ability in 1998 suggesting that a “genetic component” lay behind the difference between whites and blacks in intelligence.  He was accused of “scientific racism”, couching racial differences in IQ in a theory drawn from evolutionary biology, and of practising “social, value-laden science”.

In Britain, the dispute erupted at Edinburgh University in 1996 when the psychologist Christopher Brand declared he was a “race realist”. “The way in which I would try to explain higher levels of crime and out-of-wedlock births would not be by referring to blackness or race but to IQ,” he said. –The Independent


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