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What Are Cognitive Ability Tests?


Wyn Davies of TalentLens UK explains how psychometric tests reveal cognitive ability.

Cognitive ability refers to the brain-based skills needed to carry out any task from the simplest to the most complex.

Cognitive ability (or reasoning) tests are psychometric instruments designed for use in an occupational context to measure candidates' aptitude when faced with new and unfamiliar problems. This is a key component contributing to an individual’s General Ability. Tests are usually timed and scores are compared to “norm reference groups” of working adults.

What are Abilities?

There are different types of ability.

For example, it could be someone’s ability to speak 3 languages fluently, the ability to manage staff (learned through prior experience) or the ability to perform brain surgery. This is learned ability (crystallised intelligence).

Occupational ability tests are designed for use in the work place to measure the levels of ability to solve new problems without prior knowledge (fluid intelligence). Research studies show that cognitive ability tests are powerful predictors of task performance at work.

Whilst there are correlations between the levels of fluid and crystallised intelligence, a high level in one does not always ensure a high level in the other. This is why recruiters are increasingly using cognitive ability tests alongside evidence of prior knowledge and academic qualifications.


General Ability versus General Intelligence

Psychologists talk about Intelligence, “g”, Fluid and Crystallised intelligence, Cognitive Functioning, Cognition, Memory, Attention and Neuropsychology.

Business people talk about Ability, Skills, Academic Achievement, Exam Results, Experience, Competence, Reasoning and Brain Power. 

There are a number of theories and views on the factors contributing to general ability/intelligence but one widely held view is that it is comprised of three main components that are outlined below.


Descriptors, Language & Wording


                     HR                                       Psychologists


The wording depends on who you are talking to:

HR Recruiters and non psychologists Occupational Psychologists
General Ability (comprised of) General Intelligence (comprised of)
The ability to solve new problems, apply logic to new situations and identify patterns and trends Fluid Intelligence
The ability to draw upon what has been learned in the past (prior knowledge, academic learning and past experience) Crystallised Intelligence
Brain Power (speed of thought) Cognitive Functioning and Efficiency (brain processing speed, working and short term memory & attention)









The ability to apply and draw upon prior knowledge is measured through previous experience, skills tests, evidence-base competency interviews and academic qualifications.

Cognitive ability tests have been used for decades to measure someone's ability to solve new problems. 


How are Cognitive Ability tests used?

Over 95% of occupational ability test usage is in recruitment - either as online screeners of general ability levels (early on in the recruitment process) or in assessment centres.

Some experts believe that cognitive ability is innate, whilst others state there is evidence that it can be taught, developed or learned. Regardless, recruiters are looking to hire those applicants who already have suitable levels of general ability. Organisations may, however, wish to develop existing staff and this is where Critical Thinking Ability training, for example, can be useful. 


Complete the Puzzle

It is recommended that candidates' personality, behaviours and values are also measured. In addition to the evidence that ability tests provide, by determining an individual's personality traits, their motivation or resilience for example, one is able to build an overall impression of the candidate's suitability for the role and offer the recruiter more information upon which to base a hiring decision.


Wyn Davies


Critical Thinking