A Consultant's Casebook

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Where Did They Come From?

Victorian England witnessed an explosion of interest in the natural sciences.  Naturalists like Charles Darwin traveled the world studying and classifying plants and animals.  While Darwin's work emphasized the "how" of plant and animal variation, his cousin, Sir Francis Galton (1922-1911) was more interested in the application of Darwinian principles to engineer change - especially change in humans.  Galton gave up his study of medicine to study heredity.  His measurements demonstrated that human abilities are distributed according to the normal, bell-shaped curve.  Studies of families convinced him that many human abilities are inherited - including intelligence.  Traveling extensively through north and south Africa, and comparing Africans to Europeans, he became convinced of the influence of isolated gene pools, and the powerful influence of heredity on human intelligence.  He summarized these observations in his book Hereditary Genius (1869).[1]

The cataloging and classification tasks undertaken by Victorian-era scientists required comparisons - and comparisons require measurement or assessment.  The work of French psychologist Alfred Binet (1859-1911) contributed fundamentally to the task of measuring human intellectual abilities.  Binet wanted to measure human ability to think and reason, apart from educational experience.  In 1905, he developed the first intelligence test.   He assessed children's ability to follow commands, copy patterns, develop ordering and classification schemes, name objects, and so on.  He developed standards for these tasks by noting which tasks were successfully completed by 7-year-olds, 8-year-olds, 9-year-olds, etc.  The notion of "IQ" or "intelligence quotient" is the ratio of "mental age" to chronological age.  Thus, an 8-year-old who passes tasks appropriate for 8-year-olds has an IQ of 8/8*100=100.  An 8-year-old who passes tasks appropriate for 10-year-olds has an IQ of 10/8*100=125.

The ability to measure human intellectual abilities was enthusiastically applied.  But very early on testing traditions divided along two different paths.  The first path was true to the tradition of Binet - "situational tasks."  That is, subjects were asked to perform natural, problem-solving tasks, much like those encountered in everyday life.  The second path involved measurement with paper-and-pencil tests.  Assessment Centers trace their origins to the first path.  The more common intelligence and aptitude testing follows from the second path.

Military organizations were among the early enthusiastic proponents of testing.  During World War I, the US Army adopted largely paper-and-pencil (mostly general knowledge tests) for classifying recruits[2].  The Second World War saw even greater use for intelligence and ability tests.  Hitler's military machine made great use of tests - especially for the formation of the elite Waffen SS troops.  These men were, arguably, the most thoroughly tested of the period.

Waffen SS were chosen according to multiple criteria.  Their Aryan race, of course, was the first hurdle.  But then a battery of additional tests were administered.  In each case, only the upper percentiles of Galton's normal, bell-shaped curve were chosen.  So, if we assume a normal, bell-shaped curve for vision, only those officers able to see at the exceptional level were chosen.  Likewise, for hearing, only those officers able to hear exceptionally were chosen.  But, more interestingly, Waffen SS were also subject to situational tests - tests designed to assess loyalty, obedience to orders, and how these officers would stand up to pressure from peers, and from officers.  

The British Secret Service borrowed a page from Hitler's book.  In the English countryside, the Secret Service maintained an estate for training and evaluating agents who would be sent to work behind enemy lines.  Camp X, their espionage school, provided a realistic setting for training.  The estate was staffed with native German-speakers, and potential agents were given assignments requiring interaction with the staff, and were evaluated in their ability to maintain their cover while fulfilling their assignments.

The British precedent soon took root in the US.  On June 13, 1941, President Roosevelt created the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) to coordinate the US intelligence effort against Nazi Germany.  Roosevelt named William "Wild Bill" Donovan, a Wall Street lawyer and World War I hero, to head the office with a handful of agents.  But, without experience in espionage, the Americans relied on the British procedures and even trained at Camp X.  Shortly afterward, the OSS founded its own version of Camp X in the Virginia countryside, and named it Station S.  

The personnel at Station S were assigned the difficult task of selecting agents for a variety of espionage assignments.  The brightest psychologists of the period developed a number of creative approaches to the selection problem[3].  Spy candidates were brought to the Station S assessment center and assigned a variety of individual and team tasks.  Each candidate was supposed to maintain a cover or false identity throughout the session (unless given a specific command so they could respond "normally" to some psychological tests).  And, each candidate was asked to try to "break" the cover stories of their classmates.  

The tasks assigned by Station S staff ranged from comic to cruel.  For example, the Brook Exercise required a number of candidates to cross a canyon (really a stream) with delicate equipment (really a log), and return with explosives (really a rock).  The Wall Exercise was completed immediately afterward.  The same group was required to cross two barrier walls (Japanese prison camp), carrying their bazooka (the same log).  Individual candidates were asked to complete the Construction Exercise.  Each candidate was assigned two assistants and told he would be assessed on his leadership skills.  But, the two assistants, "Kippy," and "Buster," were shills and completely uncooperative.  Kippy was passive, sluggish, and easily distracted - he did virtually nothing unless directly told.  Buster was impractical and aggressive, criticizing the candidate at every opportunity.  

The Stress Interview was especially demanding.  The Stress Interview was developed to test the candidate's capacity to "tolerate severe emotional and intellectual strain."  The rationale for subjecting candidates to stress was that working behind enemy lines was dangerous and that agents risked capture and interrogation by the Gestapo.  To test for stress tolerance, candidates were instructed to develop a plausible and innocent cover story for why they were found going through secret papers in a government office building.  They had to maintain a coherent story despite severe interrogation under difficult physical conditions.  The candidates had to be on guard even during "respites" from interrogation, and when their questioners relaxed and switched to a post-stress interview mode.

Even after the various assessment exercises were completed, the candidates were still under observation during their "graduation" party.  Alcohol was freely available, but staff still made efforts to "break" cover stories while the teams were relaxed.  

The OSS pedigree can be traced to the over 2,000 private and public organizations in the US that use assessment centers for leader-manager selection and development. As for spies and agents, assessors frequently find it difficult to get adequate job descriptions for how managers "lead," "motivate," "organize," etc.  Worse, different managers may use completely different technologies to accomplish the same results.  Assessment Centers are supposedly able to assess the flexible approaches assumed necessary for management.  

Expert panel members develop simulation exercises that reflect (as closely as possible), the actual tasks, duties, and activities of managers as well as observable behavioral dimensions that can be rated by assessors.  The developmental process is usually in accordance with the guidelines published by the Task Force on Assessment Center Guidelines (1989). A typical Assessment Center will include a number of participants who will complete up to 10 simulation activities during a 1-2 day period.  Trained assessors work together to observe the behaviors of each participant and then collaborate to develop consensus ratings for each dimension.  Participants usually receive confidential feedback related to their performance and suggestions for their professional development.  

It is important to note that participants respond very positively to the assessment center process.  They usually describe the exercises as "real-to-life,"  and acknowledge how they provide an opportunity to see how subordinates and superiors relate to the candidate.  They appreciate being assessed in an apparently "unbiased" manner with exercises that reflect their work experience.  


[1]  Galton introduced the term eugenics, referring to "good genes"  and the notion that genetic variability should be controlled.   

[2] After the war, the results of Army testing were published, and suggested that the majority of recruits had juvenile intelligence.  This shocking news played into the hands of eugenicists who argued that intelligence was an innate, inheritable trait limited to certain types (or nationalities) of people.  These arguments found realization in the testing of immigrants at Ellis Island, and the broad classifications of immigrants of southern European and Eastern European descent as "feeble-minded" and "retarded" and the subsequent attempts by the US Congress to limit immigration from these areas.  Of course, the testing results are not surprising in light of the fact that the tests administered were general knowledge English language tests!

[3] These psychologists included Urie Bronfenbrenner, Donald Fiske, John Gardner, Klyde Kluckhohn, David Krech, David Levy, James G. Miller, O.H. Mowrer, Henry Murray, Theodore Newcomb, Donald MacKinnon, Harvey Robinson, Douglas Spencer; Nevid Stanfortt, Edward Tolman, and Kurt Lewin.  


MacDonald, E. P. (1947). Undercover girl. NY: Macmillan Co.

Morgan, W. J. (1957). The O.S.S. and I. NY: Curtis Books.

Murphy, K. & Davidshofer, C. (1998). Psychological testing: Principles and applications, 4th Ed., Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Norton, R. (1985). Dacum handbook. Leadership training series no. 67. Columbus, OH: The National Center for Research in Vocational Education.

OSS Assessment Staff. (1948). Assessment of men: Selection of personnel for the Office of Strategic Services. NY: Rinehart & Co.

Thornton, G. C., III., & Byham, W. C. (1982). Assessment centers and managerial performance. New York: Academic.

Task Force on Assessment Center Guidelines (1989, Winter). Guidelines and ethical considerations for assessment center operations. Public Personnel Management, 18(4), pp. 457-469.


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Last modified: October 19, 2000