photo of Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic

Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, HR Examiner Editorial Advisory Board Contributor

I have long been interested in psychology and technology. Psychology provides some of the best theories and methods for understanding human behavior. Technology enables us to translate that knowledge into effective applications, scalable tools, and solutions. In recent years, the synergy between psychology and technology has revitalized assessment practices bringing new types of assessment. But how effective are these novel approaches, and is the hype around these methods really justified?


Gamification is the art of making boring stuff fun or enhancing the user experience of otherwise dreary activities. HR applications have included employee selection, development, and engagement tools. The basic premise is that making tools more like games will increase adoption rates, and perhaps even get people excited about surveys, tests, and training programs.

However, there are three problems. First, when people do things for extrinsic reasons (e.g., because they want a job, a promotion, or a favourable review) most intrinsic reasons (e.g., because the activity is fun, interesting, or rewarding) will be ineffective. For example, 99% of job applicants will prefer a tedious selection test that lands them a job than a really fun test that doesn’t.

Second, using gamification to capture data is problematic because there is a clear tension between fun and accuracy: fun tests are short, interactive, and easy; accurate tests are long, rigid and difficult. And while it is possible to find a balance between fun and accuracy, most situations will prioritize one or the other, which makes compromises hard to justify. For instance, would you rather have a selection test that is 30% less fun but 30% more accurate, or vice-versa?

Third, though it is possible to design gamified tools that are valid – see one that I created here – they are 100 times more expensive than their traditional psychometric alternatives, and half as valid.

Thus, unless gamification is taken seriously, it will consist merely of dumbification, and its potential benefits may not just fail to outweigh the cost, but also backfire.

Big Data

When most people talk about big data, they tend to refer to insights and decisions based on large datasets and computer algorithms, rather than human intuition or judgment. In HR, data points represent attempts to quantify human behaviors (e.g., individual performance, team engagement, sales effectiveness, etc.) in the hope that accurate measurement improves our ability to both predict and manage those behaviors.

The good news is that this reflects an attempt to make management more evidence-based and scientific. Indeed, the two main assumptions underlying big data applications in HR – that past behavior is the best predictor of future behaviour, and that if you can’t measure something, you won’t be able to manage it – are well-established scientific facts. The bad news is that most organizations don’t have the resources (or expertise) to collect and interpret relevant data. And when they somehow manage to do so, office politics stand in the way of effective implementations. For example, even in data-driven organizations, performance appraisals and hi-po identification programs are still contaminated by managers’ agendas and employees’ ability to navigate office politics. As a result, there is usually a big gap between the true top performers and the people who are designated as stars.

Social Analytics

Social analytics translate social media activity – often referred to as digital or online footprint – into individual profiles. One important advantage of this area is that independent scientific research has provided compelling evidence for the validity of this methodology to accurately infer individual qualities, such as their IQ, interests or personality traits.

Although these estimates are not as accurate as established psychometric tests, they are free and instant to obtain (they don’t require individuals to complete an actual test). However, worries remain about the actual feasibility of adopting this methodology in recruitment. Clearly, individual consent would be needed to comply with ethical standards and address privacy concerns. And if social analytics were widely adopted in selection, it would not take job applicants long to game the algorithms by curating their social media activity according to what recruiters want. For example, research has shown that liking curly fries on Facebook is indicative of being smart – this would no longer be true if all the people in the world who want a job suddenly like curly fries on Facebook. Of course, the antidote to this would be to keep mining social media data to identify what top performers do online; but as soon as clear rules or associations emerge, candidates will be able to fake good.

In short, recent years have brought important innovations in the assessment space, all of which are driven by technology’s ability to scale data-driven inferences about human behavior. These innovations are making employers and recruiters hungrier for evidence. However, most of the claims about the actual validity or utility of these methods have been grossly exaggerated.

So far, this area has been more about style than substance and a serious, albeit optimistic, conclusion is that the field is still in its infancy.

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Photo of author Paul Hebert, founding member HRExaminer Editorial Advisory Board
HR Needs to Follow the Right Rabbit

"And as a department, as a profession and as individuals – HR is trying to chase both rabbits." -Paul Hebert