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Research Briefs | January 7, 2021

Cognitive Science as a New People Science for the Future of Work

Frida Polli, Sara Kassir, Jackson Dolphin, Lewis Baker, John Gabrieli


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The notion of studying people in jobs as a science—in fields such as human resource management, people analytics, and industrial-organizational psychology—dates back to at least the early 20th century. In 1919, Yale psychologist Henry Charles Link wrote, “The application of science to the problem of employment is just beginning to receive serious attention,” at last providing an alternative to the “hire and fire” methods of 19th-century employers. A year later, prominent organizational theorists Ordway Teal and Henry C. Metcalf claimed, “The new focus in administration is to be the human element. The new center of attention and solicitude is the individual person, the worker.” The overall conclusion at the time was that various social and psychological factors governed differences in employee productivity and satisfaction.

In some ways, the basics of modern people science remain closely aligned with the tenets first established more than 100 years ago. Namely, around the turn of the 20th century, psychologists became particularly focused on studying constructs that measured both group and individual differences, devising tests to measure them in people, and demonstrating correlations between tests (i.e., predictors) and metrics of job success (i.e., criteria). With respect to individual differences, psychologist E.L. Thorndike notably explained the concept in 1918: “We may study a human being in respect to his common humanity, or in respect to his individuality. In other words, we may study the features of intellect and character which are common to all men, or we may study the differences in intellect and character which distinguish individual men.” By the 1920s, there was a basic consensus that the scientific method could facilitate employment selection if a measurement tool could clearly demonstrate a relationship with worker efficiency.

But two primary factors have changed significantly since the establishment of the first employment selection tools: the needs of employers and the needs of society. Because hiring assessments must be developed with a particular set of priorities and circumstances in mind, they tend to become obsolete in the face of dramatic social, cultural, and economic shifts. Consider, for example, the following questions: “In the year 1900, what does the industrial factory worker need to be able to do well?”; “In the year 1950, what does the car mechanic need to be able to do well?”; and “In the year 2000, what does the truck driver need to be able to do well?” All have very different answers, meaning an assessment developed with one context in mind will be less useful for others. Notably, this idea is not unique to people science: Philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn famously coined the term paradigm shift in 1962 to describe a fundamental shift in the underlying assumptions governing a field. To quote an adage often used to explain the spirit of his work: “The answer you get depends on the question you ask.”

The nature of jobs, firms, workers, and society has transformed in innumerable ways over the past few decades; to understand the shortcomings of traditional approaches to people science, it is crucial to identify the aspects of today’s people science paradigm that were absent in earlier iterations. At a high level, these can be summarized as four considerations. First, while the concept of employee satisfaction was fairly novel before the 1930s, with the increased competitiveness of labor markets, modern employers view job fit as critical to reducing employee turnover. Second, particularly since the widespread adoption of computers, today’s employers have fewer needs for skills like rote memorization or task repetition, instead emphasizing the importance of soft skills (also known as aptitudes) in the workplace. Third, contemporary organizations are legally required to consider the fairness of their hiring strategies, and are socially pressured to prioritize demographic diversity. Fourth, in light of the potential for modern technology to both create and eliminate new types of jobs, modern employers seek more flexible approaches to evaluating talent than did their predecessors.

Practitioners of traditional approaches to employment selection have undertaken a variety of efforts to better account for the 21st century’s talent needs. The simple reality is that significant room for improvement remains, highlighting the need for a fundamental rethinking of people science strategies. Fortunately, entirely new areas of science dedicated to studying human brains, behaviors, and thought processes—fields such as cognitive science, neuropsychology, cognitive psychology, and behavioral neuroscience—have emerged since employment selection first became a research discipline. These advancements allow for the evaluation of job candidates in a manner that is individualized, nuanced, equitable, and dynamic. The result can be massive benefits to the efficiency of employers, the well-being of employees, and the cohesion of society.

Regarding terminology, this brief will often make a distinction between traditional people science and new people science. Though not formal terms, the goal here is to differentiate between methods that rely on data inputs that are heavily correlated with demographic identity and social position and methods that incorporate modern technology for evaluating human potential. Traditional people science therefore encompasses tools such as résumés and CVs, standardized educational tests, IQ (or general mental ability) tests, and personality inventories based on self-report. The new people science refers to the evaluation of behavioral data collected with digital assessments, specifically to measure the underlying cognitive, social, and emotional traits of individuals without self-reports. Best practices for traditional people science are largely captured by the professional standards put forth by Division 14 of the American Psychological Association, also known as the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP). Best practices for the new people science, on the other hand, are only beginning to coalesce as insights from behavioral and neuroscience labs are applied at scale in the context of employment selection.

This Brief Proceeds in Five Sections:

First, we review the limitations of traditional approaches to people science. In particular, we focus on four needs of the modern employer that are not satisfied by the status quo: job fit, soft skills, fairness, and flexibility.

Second, we present the foundations of a new people science by explaining how advancements in fields like cognitive science and neuroscience can be used to understand the individual differences between humans.

Third, we describe four best practices that should govern the application of the new people science theories to real-world employment contexts.

Fourth, we present a case study of how one platform company has used the new people science to create hiring models for five high-growth roles.

Finally, we explain how the type of insights presented in Section IV can be made actionable in the context of retraining employees for the future of work.