Do psychometric tests discriminate against older people?


Speed - Do we need it? 

Our Lucy has recently had a rant about the use of speed-related intelligence tests used in job candidate selection. And I’ve just been through the panic-inducing experience of taking time-limited, advanced, and intermediate cognitive ability tests during a ‘Logiks’ test user accreditation course!

Ability tests are prevalent in modern recruitment processes. But how relevant are these tests to predicting job performance? And what does research tell us about intelligence and cognitive ability in older people? Do Brave Starters have a bad hand or do we have an ace or two to play?

Intelligence, cognitive ability, and mental ability are terms used interchangeably. What we’re usually talking about is the ability to resolve verbal, numeric, or abstract thinking problems.

However, the landscape of these terms becomes a little more complex when we introduce the ideas of fluid intelligence (processing and reasoning ability), crystallized intelligence (knowledge acquired through education and experience) – and even emotional intelligence.

What does research tell us about how these things change as we get older  - and what matters?

It’s true, Frank Schmidt and John Hunter’s seminal 1998 paper found general mental ability (GMA) to be the strongest predictor of job performance among 19 selection methods evaluated. However, studies find GMA accounts for no more than 25% of job performance.

Common references to older people often mention a reduced speed of thought and poorer memory – factors associated with a decline in fluid intelligence. However, the bad news is that these qualities decline from around the age of 20. How old is that?!

On the positive side, crystallised intelligence is found to remain stable or increase until at least the age of 70 or so. Across a wide range of domains, age is generally positively related to knowledge.

If GMA or fluid intelligence declines with age, Schmidt & Hunter’s findings might lead us to believe that job performance would decrease with age. However, much research reveals an overall positive relationship between job performance and age – possibly because of the importance of experience and job knowledge for job performance.

Emotional intelligence – managing our personality to be personally and interpersonally effective – is shown to have incremental value for job performance above GMA and personality. Not surprisingly, some aspects of emotional intelligence also increase with age. Concerning personality, a number of studies show conscientiousness and agreeableness increase with age.

So, does ‘speed of thought’ measured in intelligence tests matter that much in job candidate selection? It could depend on the job. In any case, a good job candidate selection process will use a range of assessments relevant to the job and which could reveal the many positive qualities of older candidates. Rage, rage against the quelling of the light!


Schmidt, F. L., & 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(2), 262–274

Beier, M. E., & Ackerman, P. L. (2005). Age, Ability, and the Role of Prior Knowledge on the Acquisition of New Domain Knowledge: Promising Results in a Real-World Learning Environment. Psychology and Aging, 20(2), 341–355.

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