Revelian team members working on a jigsaw

Five things you might not know about cognitive ability (and completing jigsaws)

Picture this: A jigsaw puzzle with 1000 pieces. A complex landscape full of small nuances and details. We had one in our lunchroom recently (you can see some of the team pondering over it in the photo above), and everyone chipped in…what a great idea! 


But how do you solve it? What strategies do you use, if at all? Can you imagine where the pieces need to be, visualising them in your mind, even though you’ve only just come across this puzzle? 


You don’t have to be an expert jig-sawer (if that’s a real word??) to solve such a puzzle, but one ability might help. Your cognitive ability. In this blog, I thought I would highlight a few things that you may or may not be aware of regarding the concept of cognitive ability. 


Cognitive ability, or General Mental Ability (GMA) as it’s also referred to, can be described as your mental capacity to problem solve, learn, remember, pay attention and process new information. It’s an umbrella term for your ability to problem solve, recognise patterns, and work with new or novel information. It includes what we call fluid intelligence, that is intelligence related to solving new problems, using logic in new situations and identifying patterns.


Here are a few more aspects of cognitive ability that you may or may not know about.


1. Raymond Cattell (and the CHC model) are the heroes of Cognitive Ability


He’s a bit of a hero of ours, Raymond Cattell. Not only was he a pioneer in statistical methods such as factor analysis and the developer of the 16 Personality Factor Questionnaire, he contributed to the most widely accepted model of intelligence used today – the Cattell-Horn-Carroll (CHC) model of intelligence.


The CHC suggests that there are multiple types of intelligence, not just one, and that general cognitive ability is made up of various lower level abilities, such as our ability to process numerical or verbal information, make inferences from incomplete data, and effectively use memory. The CHC model has effectively shaped our understanding of what cognitive ability is, and how it can be measured. 


2. Patterns are important, but adapting is even more important


Just like in our jigsaw, patterns are important in everyday life. Pattern recognition is important in understanding the world around us, making accurate assumptions, and saving our brain’s much-needed resources.


Recently some research was conducted by David Lick and colleagues on stereotypes and levels of general intelligence. That research found that individuals with higher levels of cognitive ability were more likely to quickly adopt a social stereotype view of another person. However, importantly, these people were also more likely to quickly change their view as a result of gaining new information. So the stereotypes rarely ‘stuck’ with those who possessed higher levels of cognitive ability, and they were able to adapt effectively to new knowledge. 


3. Cognitive Ability influences ‘trainability’


Many scholars have highlighted cognitive ability as a key determinant in the effective transfer of learning. For example, Grossman and Sallas (2011) highlight cognitive ability as an essential prerequisite for effective training outcomes, and crucially the retention of training knowledge and content is impacted by this. Indeed trainees who are higher in cognitive ability tend to have more success in processing, retaining, and generalizing trained skills in other contexts.


Training of employees is often a large expenditure for organisations, and so hiring candidates who have the smarts to retain and transfer this new knowledge into the workplace can be highly cost-effective.


4. It’s separate from university grades, academic performance, job experience etc.


Cognitive ability is not just about what you already know (i.e. crystallized intelligence such as what you learned at school or university) – it’s also related to your potential to adapt to novel or challenging situations. For example, Chris might achieve high grades at university but doesn’t need to juggle other responsibilities such as a part-time job and family commitments. Conversely, Sam could have fairly average grades, but may also be using her cognitive ability to solve various problems and adapt to other external demands.


Traditional wisdom might say Chris is the ‘smartest’ in this scenario, but a closer look could identify Sam as better at learning and applying new information and juggling competing priorities. However, many organisations continue to base hiring decisions solely on metrics such as grades or GPA.


This is one (of many!) reasons why measuring cognitive ability is so powerful: it gives people who, for whatever reason, did not shine academically a chance to demonstrate their potential to excel.


5. It (really) predicts future job performance


100 years of research into selection methods have found that the humble cognitive ability test is not only the most valid and well-researched selection method, but it’s also the most cost-effective. One of the most cited research articles in the field of Organisational Psychology, Schmidt and Hunter’s (1998) meta-analyses of various selection methods, provided a ground-breaking perspective on valid and effective ways of assessing candidates and determining future job performance. They found that cognitive ability tests outperform other traditional methods in predicting future job performance.


In an update to this seminal work, Schmidt, Oh, and Shaffer (2016) provided further evidence of the predictive power of this method. In fact, they showed through their research that cognitive ability is an even stronger predictor of how well an individual will perform than was first assumed. According to the research, a cognitive ability test, combined with an interview and/or an integrity test can give you the most bang for your buck prediction wise. Nice work, guys!


From this evidence alone, there’s no doubting that cognitive ability is important, although it’s always important to consider other strengths and abilities that an individual may possess. Just like the jigsaw, it takes many different parts to make the whole picture.


However, it is reassuring to know that the jigsaw puzzle in our lunchroom was quickly completed by our team. Was it teamwork, or cognitive ability, or something else at play? I’ll let you figure that one out.


About the Author


Craig Gillies is a registered psychologist and he joined Revelian whilst completing a Masters of Organisational Psychology at Griffith University.


During his time at Revelian, Craig has been involved in a number of internal and external projects including an engagement survey, employee training, psychometric assessment, client and candidate support, and the construction and validation of a game-based assessment. Craig has also had experience in a variety of roles, including external consultancy (in government and corporate settings), smoking cessation counseling, and research work. His research interests include the role of positive psychology in the workplace (and in life in general), engagement and resilience at work. Craig is also passionate about employee/candidate wellbeing and is an advocate of Motivational Interviewing as a method of facilitating behaviour change.


  • David J. Lick, Adam L. Alter, Jonathan B. Freeman. Superior Pattern Detectors Efficiently Learn, Activate, Apply, and Update Social Stereotypes. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 2017; DOI: 10.1037/xge0000349 
  • Schmidt, Frank L. and Oh, In‐Sue and Shaffer, Jonathan A., The Validity and Utility of Selection Methods in Personnel Psychology: Practical and Theoretical Implications of 100 Years of Research Findings (October 17, 2016). Fox School of Business Research Paper. Available at SSRN: 
  • Grossman, R., & Salas, E. (2011). The transfer of training: what really matters. International Journal of Training and Development15(2), 103-120.