AbilitiesAbilities represent an individual’s capacity to perform a wide range of tasks. They are believed to be somewhat stable traits or attributes but can be developed or refined over time. There are numerous types of abilities, which can be classified into four categories. Reasoning, judging, reading, writing, mathematical reasoning, and related capabilities reflect mental capacity or cognitive ability. Abilities related to muscular activities and bodily movement are labeled psy­chomotor abilities. Examples of psychomotor abilities are reaction time, reaction speed, precision, coordination, and dexterity. Sensory or perceptual abilities, such as visual and auditory abilities, relate to detecting and recognizing stimuli. Physical abilities refer to muscular strength, cardiovascular endurance, and movement quality. The abilities that are most useful in explaining career-related outcomes are cognitive abilities, which are thus the focus of this entry.

Interest in the human intellect and cognitive ability has existed since these concepts were first introduced by Alfred Binet and Charles Spearman around 1904. Some of the first applications of this knowledge took place in the U.S. Army, through tests that assessed cognitive ability. The Army Alpha and Army Beta tests of general cognitive ability were used during World War I to select army recruits. Cognitive ability tests evolved over the years to assess different dimensions of cognitive ability, such as verbal, spatial, and quantitative ability. These tests were used during World War II to select and classify aircrew. Subsequent years saw the application of cognitive ability tests to civilian employment settings and guidance counseling in school settings.

One hundred years of interest in cognitive abilities have seen numerous issues arise related to the definition and measurement of cognitive ability. One issue that has received widespread attention is the way the different cognitive abilities are structured. There are competing viewpoints as to whether cognitive abilities are best represented by flat or hierarchical models. There is a general consensus that abilities have a hierarchical structure, although there is still some disagreement on the number of levels in the hierarchy. However, in all hierarchical models, general intelligence or general mental ability is the highest-order factor, often labeled the general factor. Different tests designed to assess cognitive ability share some common variance. The general factor forms the largest component of most tests of cognitive ability and explains the greatest common variance among these tests. Hence, most tests of cognitive ability assess general mental ability or the general factor. Second-order factors in the hierarchical structure of cognitive abilities have been labeled quantitative or numerical abilities, spatial or mechanical abilities, and verbal or linguistic abilities. A number of standardized tests used in educational settings assess these second-order ability factors. Third-order factors are defined by more specialized abilities. Examples of specialized abilities that reflect the verbal factor are oral and written comprehension and expression, deductive and inductive reasoning, and information gathering. Specialized abilities in the quantitative factor are mathematical reasoning and number facility. Specialized abilities of the spatial factor include spatial organization or visualization.

Given the hierarchical structure of cognitive ability, there has been an interest in understanding whether the more specialized abilities are more useful than general cognitive ability or the general factor in explaining important individual outcomes. Tests of specialized abilities have been used to determine whether these abilities are more effective than the general factor in predicting success in a given job. Although specialized abilities explain unique variation in an individual’s performance in a job, the amount of unique variance explained by specialized abilities is minimal and rarely exceeds 3 percent over and above general mental ability. Thus, most tests of cognitive ability used for personnel selection are designed to assess general mental ability rather than specialized abilities.

Cognitive ability is an important and meaningful construct insofar as it satisfies criteria for scientific significance. One criterion is that the items in a test of cognitive ability demonstrate acceptable levels of internal consistency reliability. The second criterion is that cognitive ability be useful in explaining important individual outcomes. Numerous tests of cognitive ability demonstrate acceptable levels of internal consistency reliability, suggesting that the questions on these tests measure the same construct. Research overwhelmingly indicates that cognitive ability explains significant variation in numerous outcomes of life, including work. A full understanding of how cognitive ability influences life, work, and career outcomes first necessitates a discussion of its influence in skill acquisition and school settings.

Individuals’ cognitive abilities impact their capacity to learn. Skill acquisition is an important first step in learning how to perform novel tasks. Skill acquisition involves three phases: cognitive, associative, and autonomous. Cognitive ability is most influential during the first phase (cognitive), which occurs when individuals are first confronted with the novel task. Other abilities are relevant during different phases of skill acquisition. The first phase places the greatest demands on the individual’s cognitive resources. Performance on the task increases with practice and at a faster rate for individuals high in cognitive ability. However, the important role that cognitive ability plays in the process of skill acquisition depends on the type of task that an individual is trying to learn. Tasks can be either consistent or inconsistent. Consistent tasks can be learned and become automatic or routine with practice (e.g., fast and effortless). The correlation between cognitive ability and performance decreases after practice on consistent tasks. In contrast, inconsistent tasks retain their novelty over time and do not become routine. The relationship between cognitive ability and performance remains positive and strong even after practice on inconsistent tasks. Thus, the degree of association between cognitive ability and performance depends on the consistency of the task and the phase of skill acquisition.

The school setting is one of the first settings in which individuals acquire basic skills and develop these skills to levels that permit them to function effectively in society. The early years of formal education are the most formative years, in which the basic skills of reading, writing, and arithmetic are acquired and developed. Subsequent education in high school, college, and graduate studies provides for the development of more specialized skills and the acquisition of specialized knowledge. General mental ability influences an individual’s achievement in each of these stages of academic development. More specifically, general mental ability has been shown to explain approximately 36 percent to 49 percent of the variation in course grades in elementary school, 25 percent to 36 percent in high school, and 16 percent to 25 percent in college. Furthermore, general mental ability has been shown to explain significant variation in numerous indicators of success in graduate studies. For example, an individual’s score on tests of general mental ability predicts attainment of the graduate degree, the time required to complete the degree, research productivity, scores on comprehensive examinations, and general performance ratings by faculty members.

Success in the academic arena equips individuals with the required knowledge and skills to function in society at large. General mental ability continues to explain variation in life outcomes even after school. The world of work is another setting in which general mental ability has proven its utility. Numerous years of research have demonstrated that general mental ability predicts job performance in both civilian and military settings. A full understanding of the extent to which cognitive ability relates to job performance requires knowledge of the different components or categories of job performance on which employees are measured. One category represents the core functions or duties of a job and has been labeled task performance. A second category, labeled organizational citizenship, contextual, or extra-role performance, represents non-task behaviors that contribute in a positive way to the organization. A third category, labeled counterproductive work behavior, represents negative behaviors that detract from the goals of the organization. Cognitive ability is a stronger predictor of task performance than of organizational citizenship behavior or of counterproductive work performance. However, it is a significant predictor of all three categories of job performance. Furthermore, cognitive ability is a stronger predictor of objective measures of performance (e.g., dollar sales) than subjective measures (e.g., supervisory ratings) but is a significant predictor of both.

The predictive power or utility of cognitive ability also depends on the complexity of the job. Jobs at the highest level of complexity include professional, scientific, and upper-management jobs, which account for approximately 14 percent of the jobs in the economy of the United States. Cognitive ability explains the greatest percentage of variation in performance in these jobs, approximately 34 percent. Cognitive ability explains the smallest percentage of variation in job performance, approximately 5 percent, in jobs at the lowest level of complexity, which account for approximately 2.5 percent of the jobs in the U.S. economy. Thus, the utility of cognitive ability is directly related to the information-processing requirements of the job. Cognitive ability is more useful in predicting job performance for cognitively complex jobs.

An important consideration for any construct that is used to make decisions about selection into educational programs or occupational settings is that the construct, in this case cognitive ability, is fair or is not inadvertently biased against members of different racial, ethnic, or gender groups. Concerns about racial bias have haunted cognitive ability tests for years. These concerns focus on the language and structure of cognitive ability tests. One popular model for assessing predictive bias in employment tests is called the regression model. An application of this model requires data on cognitive ability test scores for minority and majority group members and ratings of job performance for these members. Regressions predicting job performance from ability test scores are computed separately for majority and minority group members. These regression lines are then tested for significant differences in their slopes, intercepts, and error variances. Predictive bias is said to occur if the slope is significantly smaller for minority group members relative to majority group members. Research in which this technique has been used reports that ability tests do not underpredict the performance of minority group members even when the rater and ratee are matched on race.

An important component of an individual’s career development is job training. As individuals acquire credentials and advanced degrees, they gain access to high-status occupational training programs. Individuals acquire job knowledge from training programs and experience on the job. Questions about the usefulness of cognitive ability have also focused on whether an individual’s cognitive ability predicts his or her performance in job-training programs. Research indicates that cognitive ability explains anywhere from 25 percent to 58 percent of the variation in overall performance in job-training programs. Although the bulk of the research has been conducted in military settings, substantial evidence also exists for this relationship in nonmilitary settings. Furthermore, cognitive ability predicts training performance for jobs at all levels of complexity.

Theories of career development focus on the process of matching the person to a job. These theories rely on the assumption that each individual possesses a unique combination of interests, aptitudes, and personal characteristics that are ideally suited to a specific set of jobs. Cognitive ability plays an important role in the process of matching individuals to jobs. The second-order cognitive factors of mathematical reasoning, verbal aptitude, and spatial aptitude have been shown to influence the undergraduate and graduate degrees that students pursue. More specifically, individuals high in verbal aptitude tend to pursue careers in law and humanities, whereas individuals high in quantitative aptitude pursue careers in medicine and biological and social sciences, and individuals high in both quantitative and spatial aptitude pursue careers in engineering and the hard sciences. Beyond the discipline that individuals choose to pursue, cognitive ability also impacts the broader job strategies they choose. Jobs that are bureaucratic in nature emphasize low risk, job security, employment stability, job training, and pensions. Jobs that are entrepreneurial emphasize self-sufficiency, control and discretion at work, ambition, and the trade-off of risk for income maximization. Individuals high in cognitive ability express a preference for entrepreneurial job properties.

Skill acquisition early in life, achievement in the school setting, effective job performance, and success in occupational training programs are important steps in the development of successful careers. Evidence indicates that cognitive ability continues to play a role in important work-related outcomes after success in these early stages. Cognitive ability impacts an individual’s career satisfaction and job satisfaction. Career satisfaction refers to career progress, career advancement, and future career prospects. Job satisfaction refers to satisfaction with pay, coworkers, benefits, the work itself, and the supervisor. A negative and significant relationship between cognitive ability and career satisfaction (job satisfaction) is reported for individuals employed in hourly non-managerial jobs, whereas a positive and significant relationship is reported between cognitive ability and career satisfaction for individuals employed in salaried managerial jobs. A level of cognitive ability that is above the level required to learn and perform the job does not result in greater success on the job. Rather, it leads to lower levels of job and career satisfaction. Research also indicates that cognitive ability is related to extrinsic career success as measured by income and occupational status. Individuals high in cognitive ability earn higher incomes and obtain higher-status jobs. Furthermore, cognitive ability is related to vocational maturity. Vocational maturity is defined as having an adequate understanding of oneself and the world of work and adequate decision-making skills. Individuals high in cognitive ability score significantly higher on measures of vocational maturity than do individuals low in cognitive ability.

The impact of cognitive ability on individual outcomes is pervasive even in life outside of work. An individual’s capacity to self-manage and to function effectively in society on a daily basis is largely influenced by their cognitive abilities. Numerous tasks that individuals must perform in daily life have high information-processing requirements. As with work, the more complex the task, the more important is cognitive ability in determining success. Our ability to comprehend our surroundings, read, and write influences our effectiveness in adapting and adjusting to life. The extent to which we can handle money, participate socially, and understand bank documents, medical information, and political issues is influenced by our cognitive abilities. The importance of cognitive ability at each stage in life and career development cumulates to produce greater odds of success for individuals high in cognitive ability and limited opportunities and less success for individuals low in cognitive ability.

However, it is also important to consider the mediating influence that individual-difference characteristics other than cognitive ability have on work and life outcomes. Characteristics such as personality, family background, and socioeconomic status are also known to influence success in educational and work settings and in daily life. It is important to consider how these variables interact with cognitive ability to impact indi­viduals’ work and life outcomes.

See also:


  1. Ackerman, P. L. 1988. “Determinants of Individual Differences During Skill Acquisition: Cognitive Abilities and Information Processing.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 117:288-318.
  2. Gottfredson, L. S. 2002. “g: Highly General and Highly Practical.” Pp. 331-380 in The General Factor of Intelli­gence: How General Is It? edited by R. J. Sternberg and E. L. Grigorenko. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  3. Halaby, C. N. 2003. “Where Job Values Come From: Family and Schooling Background, Cognitive Ability, and Gender.” American Sociological Review 68:251-278.
  4. Judge, T. A., Higgins, C. A., Thoresen, C. J. and Barrick, M. R. 1999. “The Big Five Personality Traits, General Mental Ability, and Career Success across the Life Span.” Personnel Psychology 52:621-652.
  5. Kuncel, N. R., Hezlett, S. A. and Ones, D. S. 2001. “A Comprehensive Meta-Analysis of the Predictive Validity of the Graduate Record Examinations: Implications for Graduate Student Selection and Performance.” Psychological Bulletin 127:162-181.
  6. Kuncel, N. R., Hezlett, S. A. and Ones, D. S. “Academic Performance, Career Potential, Creativity, and Job Performance: Can One Construct Predict Them All?” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 86:148-161.
  7. Lounsbury, J. W., Gibson, L. W., Steel, R. P., Sundstrom, E. D. and Loveland, J. L. 2003. “An Investigation of Intelligence and Personality in Relation to Career Satisfaction.” Personality and Individual Differences 37:181-189.
  8. Morris, T. W. and Levinson, E. M. 1995. “Relationship between Intelligence and Occupational Adjustment and Functioning: A Literature Review.” Journal of Counseling and Development 73:503-514.
  9. Ree, M. J., Carretta, T. R. and Steindl, J. R. 2001. “Cognitive Ability.” Pp. 219-232 in Handbook of Industrial, Work, and Organizational Psychology, 1, edited by N. Anderson, D. S. Ones, H. K. Sinangil and C. Viswesvaran. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  10. Rotundo, M. and Sackett, P. R. 1999. “Effect of Rater Race on Conclusions Regarding Differential Prediction in Cognitive Ability Tests.” Journal of Applied Psychology 84:815-822.
  11. Schmidt, F. L. and Hunter, J. E. 1998. “The Validity and Utility of Selection Methods in Personnel Psychology: Practical and Theoretical Implications of 85 Years of Research Findings.” Psychological Bulletin 124:262-274.
  12. Schmidt, F. L. and Hunter, J. E. “General Mental Ability in the World of Work: Occupational Attainment and Job Performance.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 86:162-173.