On this, its 100th anniversary, it is interesting to reflect that World War I provided the stimulus for the birth of aptitude testing. Led by American Psychological Association President Robert Yerkes, psychologists rallied around the war effort and in very short order produced aptitude tests – not so very different from those used today – that greatly improved the military’s ability to select, classify, and assign soldiers to jobs.
A hundred years and thousands of empirical studies later, psychologists now have an arsenal of aptitude and intelligence tests that are widely used in education, the military, and industry. These tests are highly reliable and valid, and are of great utility in personnel selection and assignment. However, as good as these tests are, evidence suggests they account for only about 25 percent of variability in academic grades, job performance, or other outcome variables they are meant to predict. Said another way, 75 percent of the variation in performance is left unaccounted for by these tests.
Today’s military psychologists are actively exploring ways to measure non-cognitive attributes including drive, motivation, character, and job interests in an attempt to significantly increase the predictive validity of selection testing. The stakes are high. Even modest improvements in predictive validity, spread over the hundreds of thousands of soldiers, airmen, sailors, and marines who are brought into the military each year, will have a substantial impact on job performance and training costs.
I was lucky enough to be involved in some early efforts in this domain. Shortly after being commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Air Force, I was assigned to the Air Force Human Resources Laboratory. There I had the opportunity to work with Dr. William Alley, who had developed an interest inventory called the Vocational Interest Career Exam (VOICE). The VOICE consisted of two scales. The first was a basic interest inventory (interest in the outdoors, science, reading, etc.). The second scale, formulated from the basic interests scale, linked constellations of basic interests to Air Force enlisted occupational categories. In short, Dr. Alley found that certain patterns of basic interests were linked to different jobs and he was able to predict a recruit’s job satisfaction for these different jobs. Later, we found that these predicted job satisfaction scores were significantly linked to subsequent measures of attrition, retention, and job performance.
Although the VOICE showed promise in improving Air Force enlisted selection and assignment it was not adopted. The Air Force was and continues to be very focused on materiel systems such as state-of-the-art fighter planes and “selling” something like the VOICE to the senior leadership proved impossible. It may be that the Zeitgeist was not ready for something like the VOICE. The United States was focused on deterring peer adversaries, especially the Soviet Union, and to do so had to focus most of its attention on designing, acquiring, and maintaining expensive military hardware. Something like the VOICE barely got anyone’s attention.
With the fall of the Soviet Union and the shift away from confrontations between nuclear superpowers to smaller, lower-intensity but seemingly never ending conflicts like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the importance of optimizing human performance has become more salient for military planners and strategists. Combined with budget strain resulting in a downsizing of the military, it has become ever more important to get the most out of military personnel as possible. The Zeitgeist seems to have shifted, at least for the Army, toward an appreciation of the role of behavioral science in improving the performance of military personnel.
Thus, in recent years the military is paying a great deal more attention to psychological research in general, and to advances in non-cognitive testing as a means to improve selection and assignment, in particular. Indeed, there is too much excellent research to summarize in a short blog, so I will only point out a few highlights. If you are interested in learning more details about these developments, I refer you to a recent special issue of Military Psychology edited by Michael Rumsey [Military Psychology, 26(3), 2014].
Grit is a non-cognitive trait that has received a substantial amount of attention both within the military and in other contexts. University of Pennsylvania psychologist Dr. Angela Duckworth developed the concept of grit, which she describes as the passionate pursuit of long-term, difficult to achieve goals. In her initial reporting of grit research, Dr. Duckworth and colleagues found grit to be correlated positively with age and educational attainment, grades received in college courses, and success among participants in the National Spelling Bee.[i] Of special interest to the military community, she found that grit – as measured by a 12-item Likert scale – predicted the success of new West Point cadets, particularly in completing their demanding and rigorous basic training course. Indeed, in predicting basic training completion, grit was the only measure that predicted success. Aptitude, as measured primarily by SAT and ACT scores, was not correlated at all with course completion. Subsequently, other researchers have found grit to be useful in predicting completion of other military training, notably the arduous army special forces selection program.
The U.S. Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences is doing some of the most notable and systematic research on non-cognitive attributes of soldier performance. For example, they have designed and extensively evaluated the Tailored Adaptive Personality Assessment System, or TAPAS. The TAPAS represents a leap forward in selection and assignment evaluation, and utilizes a force-choice format, rather than Likert scales, to measure five different dimensions of non-cognitive attributes: extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, emotional stability, and openness to experience. TAPAS also include a measure of physical conditioning. TAPAS has been field tested at Military Entrance Processing Stations. A detailed description of the findings is beyond the scope of this blog, but when combined with traditional aptitude-based measures, the ability of the army to predict important organizational outcomes such as job performance and retention is significantly improved.
In this short space, I can only tease the reader with these two examples of how the science of psychological assessment has matured beyond aptitude testing. And, just as early aptitude tests first developed by the army during World War I were later seized by business and industry as tools for improving their own personnel management systems, I expect the advances that military psychologists make today will also find their way into other institutions as ways of improving selection, classification, job performance, and retention. These emerging testing strategies represent a tangible way of improving talent management in large organizations.
Note: The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not reflect the position of the United States Military Academy, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense.
[i] Duckworth, A.L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M. D., & Kelly, D. R. (2007). Grit: Perseverance and passion for long term goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92, 1087-1101.