Psychological Testing, Behavioral Genetics and Personnel Selection

Vic Napier

November 2009


Psychological testing has been a part of personnel selection since the beginning of the modern industrial state. Although factories and assembly lines existed from the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the early 18th century the huge factories that we normally associate with the period did not emerge until the late 19th century. Fredrick Taylor, the creator of “scientific management”, advocated matching worker traits to job needs in 1895 and kicked off the professional study of efficiency with his book The Principles of Scientific Management in 1911 (Taylor 1911).  

Frank Galbraith followed with his groundbreaking use of motion pictures to study worker movements, and his wife Lillian established the study of what is now called ergonomics. She also wrote The Psychology of Management – likely the first book to formally combine employee selection and training with business management (Rifkin 1995).  

By the 1920’s and 30’s John Watson, the father of behaviorism, brought psychology to advertizing, making millions of dollars as a marketer  (Schultz & Schultz 2004). (This was after a mysterious sex scandal forced him from the chair of the Department of Psychology at Johns Hopkins University and he was blackballed from academia.  

(Read the whole salacious story at  

Applying psychology to the study of consumer buying habits is similar to the study of worker productivity. Thus the infusion of psychology and organizational management was accelerated in both government and business. By the beginning of the Second World War psychological testing was in widespread use as part of the selection process for the United States military. 

From the beginning, however the application of psychology to selection and promotion of employees has been controversial. As early as 1911, in response to Taylor’s book, unions were criticizing the practice, and Taylor was called to testify in Congressional hearings (Scroggins, Thomas, et. al. 2008; Taylor 1911).  More recently the film Gattaca (Divito & Niccol 1997) profiles a world in which only humans who have been genetically enhanced can hope to meet standards ensuring jobs with dignity and meaning. 

Today psychological testing is common, and bound to become more invasive. High level executives are commonly subjected to personality tests, and lower level employees can expect tests of integrity and loyalty. The 1980’s “War on Drugs” rationalized the analysis of tissue samples of employees as a condition of employment, opening the door to the examination of DNA by employers.  

In 2003, Burlington Northern secretly used genetic testing to establish the cause of a high incidence of carpal tunnel syndrome in its employees.  In a subsequent lawsuit the EEOC found that company doctors were instructed to find genetic evidence of other disorders as well, including alcoholism – an ailment coming very close to what could be considered a psychological trait (National Genome Research Institute 2007).   

The thing that makes this trend so troubling is that behaviors and personality traits are becoming increasingly traced to genes that are detectable by DNA analysis. In recent years a number of behaviors and personality traits have been found to be predicted by genes. These include personality traits such as risk taking (Zuckerman & Kuhlman 2000), shyness (Arbelle, Benjamin, et al. 2003), and sexual behaviors (Ben Zion, Tessler, et al. 2006). 

Generally courts have ruled that because businesses live or die largely as a result of the competitive advantage inherent in their workforce, and safety considerations outweigh privacy rights of employees, tissue samples are fair game in hiring, advancement and termination decisions. This same line of reasoning could be applied to sexual orientation or risk taking in the future. People operating heavy equipment might be tested for risk taking genes, and teachers may be subject searches for a pedophilia gene, (if it exists).  

Psychological testing is a good idea when it is used to match people to jobs for which their natural gifts make them well suited, but when used strictly for the benefit of business or public administration it becomes dangerous. Industrial/Organizational psychologists walk a very delicate line when they work on behalf of organizations instead of individuals when testing employees. Developments in genetic testing might could easily create a situation in which psychologists could be put in the position of German doctors in the early 20th century when eugenics seemed to be a panacea for improving the plight of humanity.   

 Vic Napier



Arbelle, S., J. Benjamin, et al. (2003). "Relation of Shyness in Grade School Children to the Genotype for the Long Form of the Serotonin Transporter Promoter Region Polymorphism." Am J Psychiatry 160(4): 671-676. 

Ben Zion, I. Z., R. Tessler, et al. (2006). "Polymorphisms in the dopamine D4 receptor gene (DRD4) contribute to individual differences in human sexual behavior: desire, arousal and sexual function." Molecular Psychiatry 11(8): 782-786. 

 DeVito, D (Producer) & Niccol, A. (Writer/Director). (1997). Gattaca [Motion Picture]. United States: Columbia International Pictures. 

National Genome Research Institute. (2007), Cases of Genetic Discrimination, Accessed at: 

Rifkin, J. (1995). The end of work : the decline of the global labor force and the dawn of the post-market era. New York, G.P. Putnam's Sons. 

Schultz, D. P. and S. E. Schultz (2004). A history of modern psychology. Belmont, CA, Thomson/Wadsworth. 

Scroggins, W., A. , S. Thomas, L. , et al. (2008). "Psychological Testing in Personnel Selection, Part I: A Century of Psychological Testing." Public Personnel Management 37(1): 99. 

Stoel, R. D., E. J. C. Geus, et al. (2006). "Genetic Analysis of Sensation Seeking with an Extended Twin Design." Behavior Genetics 36(2): 229-237. 

Taylor, F. W. (1911). The principles of scientific management. New York, London,, Harper & Brothers. 

Zuckerman, M., & Kuhlman, D. M. (2000). Personality and risk-taking: Common biosocial factors. Journal Of Personality, 68(6), 999-1029. 

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