Can Aptitude Tests Be Used to Predict Bad Behavior?

We’ve previously written about the use of the Wonderlic aptitude test on NFL draft prospects, pointing out that the popular press and NFL fans as a whole have often unfairly dismissed aptitude tests as irrelevant to future gridiron success. This seems to be based on jock stereotypes about the sport and on a misunderstanding of how tests, and predictive tools in general, work.  Virtually every article about the Wonderlic test at the NFL draft mentions Dan Marino, who bombed the Wonderlic and went on to a Hall of Fame career, as evidence that the tests aren’t predictive of success in football. However, this type of anecdotal evidence clearly holds no weight when statistically determining whether or not a test works.

We’ve argued, for example, that there may be more of a correlation between Wonderlic scores of NFL quarterbacks and their future performance than is supposed. Nevertheless, it is fair to say that the evidence for the predictive power of the Wonderlic in the NFL is mixed. This is not surprising, because while the modern NFL game is quite complex and requires quick decision-making skills—especially from quarterbacks—it is clear that so many of the determinants of success in the NFL have to do with athleticism, work ethic, and other things aptitude tests can’t measure.

Recently, CBS Sports published a story about a new analysis of the links between Wonderlic scores and the subsequent fates of the NFLers who took it (and yes, it does contain the obligatory mention of Dan Marino). This one had a very different focus, however, because instead of examining on-field performance, the study looked at the relationship between Wonderlic scores and the arrest records of NFL players. The results of the study, which appeared in the American Journal of Applied Psychology, were striking; players with below average Wonderlic scores were twice as likely to be subsequently arrested as those who scored above the mean.

This is the first time we’ve seen a study that links low Wonderlic test scores to what the study calls “off-duty deviance,” or ODD, which may be our new favorite psychological term (“you down with ODD? yeah you know me.”)  Employers trying to prevent discipline-related problems in the workplace often use integrity/honesty tests or behavioral risk assessments that measure rule adherence or personality traits like conscientiousness that are linked to good behavior. Such tests have been shown to help prevent a wide variety of counterproductive work behaviors such as safety violations, absenteeism, illicit drug use, theft, and fraud.  Aptitude tests, however, are more commonly used to predict overall performance, not who will constitute a behavioral risk.

But the new Wonderlic study is actually not the only sign of a possible link between intelligence and honesty.  The Washington Post recently reported on an Israeli study that seemed to link intelligence with honesty and truth-telling behavior. The study asked participants to enter a booth, roll a six-sided die, and report the number that came up to receive that amount of money instantly (if you roll a 4, you get $4, etc.). What they found was that those who scored lower on an intelligence test were far more likely to lie about rolling a six.

The implications of this study remain to be seen, so the results should be taken with a grain of salt. However, there seems to be growing evidence of a link between cognitive aptitude (intelligence) and other qualities that are typically thought to be purely behavioral or personality-driven. We expect to see a lot of future psychological research take on questions such as these, and we’re excited to see where the data lands!