Scientists Develop a Test to Help Illuminate an Important Workplace Trait

"It's a combination of experience, real-world events, theory, and empirical evidence"

There are reasons to not take a job if the interview requires tricky brain teasers. But what if the interview requires responses to very specific situational questions, or interpreting videos of actors speaking gibberish? This, according to a paper published in October in the Journal of Applied Psychology, may be what the future holds for job seekers.

These tasks may seem strange, but they’re all part of a newly developed Geneva Emotional Competence Test (GECO) specifically designed for the workplace. Put forth by Marcello Mortillaro, Ph.D., a senior researcher in nonverbal behavior at the University of Geneva, and his colleagues, the test is intended to gauge emotional intelligence — a measure of how well someone can interpret emotions (both their own and those of others) and act rationally based on that interpretation. They suggest that a person’s emotional intelligence may be a reliable way to predict how well-suited an applicant might be for a particular job — managing others, for instance.

Emotional intelligence tests are still far from the norm when it comes to hiring, but Mortillaro believes he’s found a better way to approach this realm.

“It’s a combination of experience, real-world events, theory, and empirical evidence,” he tells Inverse.

To devise the test, Mortillaro leveraged literature on effective coping mechanisms, a survey of managers in Switzerland, and five experiments on 888 total subjects (in which he tested his design against existing emotional intelligence tests) to devise his new test — a small sample of which he shared with Inverse.

The Test (or Part of It)

This test is broken into four tasks that measure four different elements of emotional intelligence. The one shared here is an emotional recognition task, in which test takers are shown videos of actors speaking a fictional language while expressing certain emotions.

The test takers’ job is to guess the emotions each person is expressing from fourteen possible choices: anger, pride, joy, amusement, pleasure, relief, interest, surprise, anxiety, fear, despair, sadness, disgust, or irritation.

What emotion is she expressing?

Not everyone is great at reading faces, but this task is just one of a battery of tests that Mortillaro developed. Another test designed to measure someone’s ability to interpret emotive signals is the emotional understanding task, which asks the test taker to interpret the feelings of others based on contextual information (they hear a scenario and have to imagine how someone else might be feeling).

But other tasks ask the test taker to demonstrate how they might put their observational skills into action. The emotional management task has the test taker imagine how they might care for an angry or anxious colleague. Finally, the emotional regulation task asks the participant to describe their own responses to certain events, for instance, criticism from a superior.

The Backing Behind It

The questions and scenarios put forth in Mortillaro’s test are based on scenarios described by a sample of managers he recruited in Switzerland. The answers, however, draw their inspiration from a different source:

“There’s a lot of literature that says there are ways of thinking that are adaptive — in the sense they help us cope with stressful events that happen — and there are strategies that are maladaptive. They don’t help our coping potential,” he says. “For example, rumination is one of those things that keeps you in the loop of negative emotions.”

For example when faced with an emotional regulation task, saying that you would ruminate — or dwell on negative emotions — may constitute a “wrong answer” in certain contexts given in the test. In this case, there are some studies showing that rumination can take its toll on employees.

But anytime we look at a new test intended to give employers insight into employees or potential job applicants it’s impossible not to wonder if someone may be denied a job because of a test score. Mortillaro isn’t unaware of this potential, though he emphasizes that his test is more about learning to identify someone’s specific emotional coping skills in the context of a work environment. From there, the idea is to improve.

“For me it’s more about assessment, so personal development. How can I improve, how can I become better at my job,” he says. “It’s more about giving the right role to each person who takes the test. Maybe I’m not so good at managing people’s emotions so maybe I should do something more technical.”

Mortillaro adds that it’s actually being used as part of an admissions process for a European hospitality school (he couldn’t disclose the school’s name), so this may represent some early traction, though most of the test takers so far have been exposed to the test through his research, not while on the job.

But just in case, the correct responses to the emotional regulation task, in order of appearance, are amusement, anger, fear, and joy.