The Test of Time

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Graduates doubting the wisdom of Daniel Akst's thoughts on self-employment should ponder this column by John Kelly in the Washington Post on the indignities of the psychological test used by one local media company for prospective hires as an alternative to conventional interviews.

While test publishers claim that studies bear out the value of their products in better fit and reduced turnover, their critics have a stock of anecdotes to the contrary. There's the experience of the Intel co-founder Gordon Moore (of Moore's Law fame), when tested for William Shockley's new semiconductor company by a New York psychological consulting firm:

I not only got to read [his own test report] --I got to read the one on [future Intel co-founder] Bob Noyce. And the general conclusion on both of us was we were great scientists but neither of us would be a manager.

And at least in Connecticut, the courts have ruled that it's legal to disqualify a police candidate for scoring too high on an intelligence test, the rationale being that smart cops will just get bored and quit instead of using their brains to fight crime more imaginatively and advance in the service, as we uninformed lay citizens might suppose.

The NFL uses the same test on players. As Selena Roberts wrote dryly in the New York Times,

The Wonderlic would be dropped by all 32 teams -- which National Football Scouting answers to -- if it wasn't so valued for its history of consistent error.

And Jonah Lehrer illustrates how meaningless it can be in real-life play.

Getting back to the Post column, if you must disregard Dan Akst's advice, the classic remedy may still be the one published by William H. Whyte in Fortune and reprinted in The Organization Man over 50 years ago.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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