We like you, but your brain has got to go

There’s an interesting article on Slate.com about magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and its growing non-medical uses. This is the technology that uses, I think, magnetic waves to create an image of brain activity. It’s used for a lot of stuff, but researchers love it because it lets them examine what the brain’s doing when subjects go through any number of tasks –doing math, reading, solving puzzles, etc.

Old news, but the article soon points out uncharted territory for MRI, including lie detection, evaluating the effectiveness of marketing (which I’ve mentioned before), and screening job applicants. To quote:

The most complex, fraught, and uncertain aspect of brain imaging being discussed by neuroethicists is the potential these technologies hold for screening job and school applicants. This so far remains more a hypothetical notion than a budding industry, and no company or school has announced plans to scan applicants. Yet many ethicists feel the temptation will be overwhelming. How to resist a screen that can gauge precisely the sorts of traits�persistence, extroversion, the ability to focus or multitask�that make good employees or students?

The legality of such use is unclear. The relevant federal laws, the American With Disabilities Act and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (which governs privacy of medical information), allow pre-employment medical tests only if they assess abilities relevant to a particular job. An employer couldn’t legally scan for depression or incipient Alzheimer’s. Yet it’s possible an employer could legally use a brain scan to test for traits relevant to a particular job�risk tolerance for a stock-trading job, for instance, or extroversion for a sales position. An additional attraction of brain scanning is that a tester can evaluate these and other traits while an applicant performs nonthreatening, apparently unrelated tasks�like matching labels to pictures. An unscrupulous employer could fashion such tests to covertly explore subjects that would be off-limits in an interview, such as susceptibility to depression, or cultural, sexual, and political preferences.

The last bit about using MRIs to determine political preferences or other taboo topics doesn’t worry me. Those aren’t just “off-limits in an interview.” Laws (at least here in the U.S. and many other places) forbid employment decision-making on the basis of that kind of stuff no matter how you obtain the information. (Though I admit the status of an MRI scan as a medical exam and thus falling under the purview of associated laws is likely to be a thorny issue.)

In fact, this kind of thing really appeals to me on some level. How cool would it be to have Johnny T. Applicant come into a room, see a bright light, then be told he’s perfect for the job? It’d be like a frickin’ religious experience!

This is mainly because I/O Psychologists like myself have always worked under the burden of imperfect measurement and anything that can give us the kind of precision seen in other sciences is automatically intriguing. Instead of asking someone to describe how they’ve dealt with stressful situations in the past, you just describe one to him or show him a video of one and watch what happens in his brain. You could probably eliminate (or at least reduce) lying and other biases by asking questions related to personality or values and then looking not for voluntary responses from their lips or pencils, but involuntary brain activity. Neat!

In the end, though, I don’t see this as a replacement for all of the tests we currently use. Psychological constructs are, by definition, groups of behaviors that reliably covary. Behaviors –specifically on the job behaviors– are what we’re ultimately interested in, and in many cases it seems like it would be easier and better to just measure them directly. An MRI isn’t going to tell you if someone understands the laws around business accounting or if he can lift a 50-pound box over his head. There are also many other relevant issues that an MRI couldn’t ever measure, like schedule availability, salary requirements, licensing, and specific job knowledge. Still, it is a fascinating application of a technology when it comes to getting at constructs that are difficult or impossible to reproduce in artificial environments –personality, values, judgment, and decision-making.

Published by

One thought on “We like you, but your brain has got to go

  1. “This is the technology that uses, I think, magnetic waves to create an image of brain activity.”
    Sort of… you go into a giant magnetic field (stronger than the earth’s actually) and all of the water molecules (actually hydrogen atoms in water, but whatever) in your body “line up” with that field. When the field is turned off, they “ring” like bells as they move back into normal position.
    You then listen for that ring and do some fancy math (Fourier transforms) to generate a pretty picture.
    I’ve always found this use of brain scans (I though PET, which uses radioactivity, was more common for brain activity?) comical. It’s pretty well known that the brain is adaptive so it’s not a given that everyone shows the same activity when doing the same task.
    Sounds like grounds for a discrimination suit, to me 😉 Left-brain thinkers, gays and the elderly would make a powerful coalition!

Comments are closed.