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Recruiting Better Talent With Brain Games And Big Data

With the technology to conduct more nuanced tests, some companies say they can provide more useful detail about how people think in dynamic situations.
Marcus Butt
Getty Images/Ikon Images
With the technology to conduct more nuanced tests, some companies say they can provide more useful detail about how people think in dynamic situations.

The job interview hasn't changed much over the years. There are the resumes, the face-to-face meetings, the callbacks — and the agonizing wait, as employers decide based on a hunch about who's best suited for the job.

Some companies are selling the idea that new behavioral science techniques can give employers more insight into hiring.

For most of her life, Frida Polli assumed she'd be an academic. She got her Ph.D, toiled in a research lab and started a post-doctorate program before she realized she'd been wrong.

Polli didn't want to study neuropsychology — she wanted to use it in business.

"People have always wanted to find a way to assess someone's cognitive and emotional traits in an objective way that might give them a sense of: What is this person really ideally suited for?" she says.

So Polli co-founded Pymetrics, which uses brain games to measure things like attention to detail and risk tolerance — factors that she says can help determine a good job fit. Polli says her own results were accurate.

"It told me that I was a little bit impulsive — which I'm definitely impulsive. And entrepreneurship was my top match, so I was pretty happy about that. It was a relief because, you know, otherwise I'd have to consider a different job," she says.

Tests for intelligence and personality traits have been around for a century. But with big data and the technology to conduct more nuanced tests, some firms say they can provide more useful detail about people's innate abilities. They say a better gauge of personality traits can help increase productivity and reduce turnover.

The science of these claims isn't yet clear.

Frederick Morgeson, an organizational psychology expert at Michigan State University, says some tests do predict job performance.

But, he says, "whether the claims that these companies are making are in fact true and they're measuring what they say they're measuring — that is a question that can really only be answered by research."

And very little independent research exists.

Still, I wondered what these tests might say about my fit with the one and only career I've ever had. So I tried RoundPegg, which asks its users to select values that are most and least important to them — qualities like "decisiveness" or "being supportive."

Natalie Baumgartner, a psychologist and RoundPegg's founder, says the goal is to reveal your inner archetype.

"When you are required to function in a way that's really misaligned with your wiring, it becomes very exhausting and over time we tend to not want to do it," she says.

Having Baumgartner interpret my results feels a bit like a palm reading. I'm less invested in structure or collaboration, she says. "Military would not be a great route for you."

I'm also not cut out for project management. I'm an explorer, she says, who values autonomy and creativity.

"If I put my real psychological hat on, that's a great combination for being a reporter," Baumgartner adds.

Other behavioral tests rely less on self-assessment and try to tap into the subconscious. A company called Knack claims to do this by tracking how people play their cellphone games.

In my test, I'm hurling water balloons in the style of Angry Birds. But it's hard to tell whether there's any strategy in this game.

The Knack app has users play games that gauge their playing style to determine how they think and work.
/ Apple App Store
Apple App Store
The Knack app has users play games that gauge their playing style to determine how they think and work.

But behind the scenes, Knack is collecting thousands of data points about how I play. Guy Halfteck, the company's founder and CEO, says gameplay correlates with how people think and work.

"Level of pressure, intensity, level of challenge — we look at all those behaviors," he says.

The results say I'm optimistic, introspective and resilient. But it also says I have spatial skills consistent with an engineer. That, I tell Halfteck, seems dead wrong.

"It's kind of tricky to rely just on your personal experience or your own self-perception," he says. "And that's the purpose of Knack, to provide that insight, to help people uncover what thing that they might not be aware of."

Andy Boyd went from skeptic to believer of these tests. He manages sales for a firm called Agility Recovery, which, until several years ago, retained only a quarter of its salespeople every year.

Boyd started using RoundPegg on job candidates and found it changed not only who they hired, but how they trained them.

"We begin to group our people based on how they're wired and teach them strategies based on the way that they work, instead of the way we want them to work," Boyd says.

He says his company is hiring talent from places it might have otherwise overlooked. His team is not only more diverse — the majority of them now stick around.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

Yuki Noguchi is a correspondent on the Science Desk based out of NPR's headquarters in Washington, D.C. She started covering consumer health in the midst of the pandemic, reporting on everything from vaccination and racial inequities in access to health, to cancer care, obesity and mental health.

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