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The Impact of Practice Values on Our Science

Joel Lefkowitz
Baruch College, and The Graduate Center, CUNY (Emeritus)

In an I-O psychology journal that emphasizes Perspectives on Science and Practice, a recent focal article by Scherbaum, Goldstein, Yusko, Ryan, and Hanges (2012) critical of the study and use of the construct intelligence in I-O psychology prompted 10 commentaries that were published as well as a reply by the authors.1 This article is not focused on the nominal issues raised and discussed in those 12 essays. However, I believe that those concerns reflect a very important meta-issue concerning the professional identity and values of the field of I-O psychology, especially regarding the role of professional practice.

It is necessary to briefly review the thrust of the issues considered to appreciate the points I wish to raise here. These are the particulars Scherbaum et al. (2012) point out that are especially revealing and pertinent to my perspective: (a) we have focused almost exclusively on the narrow (albeit important) questions of using intelligence to predict performance outcomes or examining racial subgroup differences on intelligence test scores;2 (b) in contrast to other fields that delve into intelligence research with greater depth, our field needs to reorient itself toward studying intelligence for understanding as well as prediction; (c) the quantity of research on intelligence we publish in our most prestigious journals has decreased over time, and most of the articles focus on the prediction of performance; and correspondingly, (d) for the most part, research centering on underlying issues relating to construct, structure, and measurement is being published in areas of psychology outside of I-O and in journals that the typical I-O psychologist does not read.

I believe it is fair to summarize the commentaries as revealing both considerable agreement and/or elaborations of the essential critique as well as disagreement. For example, much was written in some commentaries about extant conceptions of intelligence other than g, whereas other commentaries made the point that such other views were redundant and/or unnecessary. Some of the commentaries were essentially of the sort that “things are not as bad as portrayed.” For example, the percentage of intelligence research published in I-O journals is actually almost 6% rather than just over 1%. Hanges, Scherbaum, Goldstein, Ryan, and Yusko (2012) observe that they and the commentaries seem to be in agreement regarding the state of intelligence research in I-O psychology: “We are viewed as the protector of the status quo and not open to change...; not connected to the context of work, which we seek to predict...; and outdated...” (p. 192).


1For the sake of brevity the commentaries are not cited individually.
2This seems confirmed by the Special Section of a recent issue of The Journal of Applied Psychology, 96(5), 2011, and illustrated recently by the work of Arneson, Sackett, and Beatty (2011).

So, Why?

In response to their own question “Why don’t we study intelligence in I-O psychology?” Scherbaum et al. (p. 133) provide five answers: (a) we have embraced the psychometric approach to the exclusion of all others; (b) additional research has been discouraged by our success at psychometric prediction of performance; (c) a “misplaced belief that the major questions have all been answered”; (d) we have been preoccupied and distracted by legal and adverse impact concerns; and (e) the field is marked by uncooperative “debate” between those seen as supporting scientific research versus those concerned with social goals. In their reply, Hanges et al. reiterate that the two greatest obstacles are “the ‘mission accomplished mentality’ and...an emphasis on prediction and application at the expense of basic research” (pp. 193–194).

My concerns are prompted by the belief that even if those answers are accurate, they do not adequately explain the problem. They cry out for explanations of their own—second-order answers, if you will. Why have we embraced the psychometric approach exclusively? Why are we sanguine about mere predictive efficiency (even though it is far from perfect)? Why would any behavioral scientists believe there’s little more to learn about intelligence? And why are legal and social concerns both so distracting and contentious?

I believe that the answer(s) to these questions reflect a pervasive values system in I-O psychology concerning the nature and primacy of professional practice, including its influence on our science. If so, then the constructive suggestions offered by Scherbaum et al. (as well as by the authors of the commentaries) regarding “What should I-O psychology be doing to study intelligence?” (p. 138) are unlikely to suffice because they fail to address the meta-issue. It is undoubtedly true that we should do much of what was suggested to ameliorate this state of affairs: increase content- and theory-oriented research on understanding the construct, especially as it is manifested in work settings, including use of experimental manipulations. But if those proposals run counter to a salient values system that implicitly shapes our professional interests and theoretical research in other directions, they are unlikely to be heeded unless the underlying values issues are also addressed.

Before proceeding, it might be good to ask whether there is any evidence that supports this interpretation, even though such “evidence” could only be inferential and suggestive. If the critical issue is indeed an underlying values perspective (described briefly in the following section), so that the way we [do not] study intelligence can be seen in this context as an indicator of such, then the criticisms raised by Scherbaum et al. are likely to be reflected in other indicators, as well. Accordingly, I submit that the same characterizations can indeed be made (to greater or lesser degrees) of a number of psychological constructs appearing in the I-O psychology literature but about which we understand rather little of substance, and what is known has been produced largely by psychologists in other specialties: for example, burnout, commitment, conscientiousness, creativity, decision making, dominance, honesty, loyalty, self-esteem, skill acquisition, workaholism, as well as any number of interpersonal processes and specific aptitudes.3


3Of course there are exceptions—goal-setting and organizational socialization (e.g., ASA theory) are two that come to mind immediately. But there appear to be so few as to emphasize the generalization being made.

I-O Psychology From a Values Perspective

As has been noted in the past (Lefkowitz, 1987, 1990, 2003, 2005, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011a, in press), I-O psychology’s value system may be characterized by a ubiquitous managerial bias (cf. also Baritz, 1960; Katzell & Austin, 1992; Kornhauser, 1947; Zickar & Gibby, 2007) marked by the near-exclusive use of business criteria to evaluate our own work, all of which belies the mistaken or naive belief that our work is entirely objective and “neutral,” or value-free. This has been reinforced by the relative abandonment of the individual psychological perspective (Weiss & Rupp, 2011), the humanist tradition in psychology (Kimble, 1984), and the professional ideal of social responsibility (Hall, 1975; Kimball, 1992).4 I have been told by I-O colleagues that although they might accept that values characterization as a dominant influence on the nature of our professional practice, they fail to see its applicability to the conduct of our science, which they still view as entirely “objective.” In my opinion, part of the value of the Scherbaum, et al. essay regarding the study of intelligence is the demonstration of such distortion of the scientific enterprise.

4Any such generalization can usually be criticized accurately as overblown; no profession is monolithic; and many I-O psychologists perform much charitable and/or pro bono work. But that does not speak to the dominant values orientation of the profession qua profession, as reflected in its customary practices.

Some Adverse Influences of Professional Practice

To put it bluntly, the state of affairs implied by Scherbaum et al.’s observations is that many of us behave as if all we care about concerning intelligence is that cognitive ability tests predict employee performance and are putatively fair to minorities (by our criteria), hence legal. This dominant emphasis on justifying professional usage has consequences that even go beyond the resulting lack of curiosity and concern for scientific meaning pointed out by the authors. For example, it has led us to largely ignore “clear evidence for bias” in the performance ratings we use as criteria in our validation studies (Stauffer & Buckley, 2005, p. 289), as well as analyses which indicate that the methods we use to assess fairness in such tests are “incorrect and biased against minorities” (Terris, 1997, p. 25). It has also been demonstrated that if a test is shown to be unbiased in the predictive sense, it is biased in the measurement (i.e., construct-meaning) sense (Millsap, 1995, 1997). Moreover, in the absence of predictive bias (hence, with measurement bias present) the accuracy of prediction for the lower scoring (usually minority) group is markedly degraded while accuracy for the higher scoring (usually white majority) group is only marginally affected (Millsap, 2007). Of particular relevance to the current discussion, these inconvenient (scientific) findings have been ignored in the practice of employee selection and in the formulation of testing standards (Borsboom, 2006).

This is not meant as a wholesale criticism of professional practice, or applied psychology, or of testing in particular. After all, as pointed out correctly in one of the commentaries noted previously, “by definition, the primary focus [of I-O psychology] is application” (Postlethwaite, Giluk & Schmidt, 2012, p.188). And it is abundantly clear that much good results from skillful applications. For example, up to the mid-19th century the field of economics was preoccupied with simply understanding the causes and effects of catastrophic events—famine, crop failure, overpopulation, and so forth. (This is the origin of the appellation “the dismal science.”) Things changed dramatically with the development of applied economics aimed at predicting, preventing, and ameliorating such catastrophes.

Moral and values issues arise in the application of disciplines that study humankind, largely the biological, social, behavioral, and economic sciences. The physiologist has an applied counterpart in clinical medical practice; there are neuroscientists as well as neurosurgeons; there are personality theorists in psychology as well as psychotherapists; child-developmental psychologists and school guidance counselors; learning theorists and education experts; and so on. Critically, however, the nature of professional practice in each case is suffused with a humanist tradition in which the interests of the individual (patient, client, student) and betterment of the human condition are the primary and direct concerns. In each case, those aims are intrinsic to the profession and, indeed, have traditionally been a defining attribute of what is meant by a “profession.”

I-O psychology is obviously rather different. In none of those fields noted above is the welfare of the organizational setting of the professional practice (e.g., clinic, hospital or school) the primary intended beneficiary. In fact, those organizations themselves exist to benefit the individual patients, clients, and students they serve. In contrast, not only is our science aimed at studying the organization, and our professional practice directed primarily at improving the organization’s (economic and financial) effectiveness, but the goals and objectives of the organizations themselves (large business corporations for the most part) often do not include employee betterment to any appreciable degree. (This is not to ignore that much of value does indeed accrue to employees and other corporate stakeholders by virtue of the goods, services, and employment provided by the companies.) Expressing it slightly differently:

When the meta-objectives of the institutions to be served (e.g., schools and mental health clinics) are entirely commensurate with the humanitarian objectives that comprise the applied portion of psychology’s value system, no additional ethical issues are raised. However, when those served are business organizations governed largely (albeit sometimes not exclusively) by a value system of profit making for just one stakeholder group, actions on their behalf may sometimes conflict with our objective “to improve the condition of individuals, organizations, and society” [APA, 2002, p. 1062]. (Lefkowitz, 2003, p. 231)

This criticism is reminiscent of Donaldson’s (1982) discussion of the relatively new “technocratic professions” created in the context of corporate life (e.g., marketing, public relations, advertising, labor negotiation). He suggests that although they have formal attributes in common with the traditional professions (e.g., medicine, law, teaching), they lack a spirit of service and explicit moral standards. The humanitarian orientation that has been recognized as an intrinsic aspect of a profession is not a salient aspect of the professional practice of I-O psychology.

Science and Practice

This analysis leads inexorably to a consideration of the venerable issue of the relationship between science and practice, and its nature in I-O psychology in particular. The present forum permits only the briefest of summaries (cf. Lefkowitz, 2011b, 2012, for further consideration). In my opinion, I-O psychology has always been rather progressive and flexible in its view regarding the relationship between these two domains. The dominant view in many professions and scientific disciplines has invariably entailed the primacy of science, secondary status for the domain of applications, and “the belief in a one-way relationship between research-tested theory and practice” (Hoshmand & Polkinghorne, 1992, p. 56). Nevertheless, it has probably always also been true that the applied problems encountered by professional practitioners (whether in a surgeon’s operating room, psychotherapist’s office, factory floor or other venue) have stimulated and contributed to scientific and theoretical advances. In addition, this bidirectional influence may have always been even more characteristic of and certainly more acceptable in I-O psychology, as an avowedly applied discipline. This is, in fact, a positive and constructive aspect of the condition I have otherwise been criticizing: the dominance of professional practice and its values. Nevertheless, the most important point to be recognized in this regard is that the practice of I-O hasn’t merely informed our science in a neutral sense but has tended to direct and delimit its focus in the service of economic corporate interests. (Hence, for example, we perseverate over the predictive use of intelligence tests for employee selection but show much less concern for elucidating the construct.)5 Because a humanitarian orientation is not a dominant or even particularly salient aspect of professional practice in I-O psychology, I have long advocated replacing the scientist–practitioner values model with a scientist–practitioner–humanist model for I-O psychology (e.g., Lefkowitz, 1990, 2011a, in press). But that is a whole additional discussion.


5Sometimes I believe that the development of a good operational measure of a construct is both the best and worst thing that could happen to advance our understanding of it.


Although the putative failings of I-O psychology’s approach to the study of intelligence (and, arguably, other constructs) is an important issue, metaphorically it represents only the tip of the iceberg of an even more important and pervasive professional concern. Corporate goals and objectives are not only preeminent in defining the nature, content, and criteria of professional practice in I-O psychology, they also influence greatly our scientific research agenda, partially to the detriment of the field. In addition, those goals and objectives represent a value system largely void of the caring, humanistic, and societal concerns that have traditionally defined what it means to be a profession. However, to end on a positive note, recent work in the field gives cause for optimism: see Carr, MachLachlan, and Furnham (2012) on humanitarian work psychology; and Olson-Buchanan, Koppes Bryan, and Thompson (in press) on using I-O for the common good.


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