The gravitational hypothesis is a theory that suggests that workers will gravitate, or move, to jobs that match their cognitive ability. Cognitive ability, generally speaking, is a person’s cognitive capacity or general mental capability that determines how quickly that person can process and understand concepts and ideas. It is believed to be stable once a person reaches adulthood. According to the gravitational hypothesis, one driver of workers’ movement across jobs is their general cognitive ability such that high-ability workers gravitate toward jobs with high cognitive demands and low-ability workers gravitate toward jobs with low cognitive demands. Said another way, workers gravitate to work that they can adequately perform.
Clearly, there are many potential drivers of worker mobility across jobs, but this theory focuses on general cognitive ability in particular. Because cognitive ability is unchanging, workers must move to jobs where they can achieve the best match between their abilities and the cognitive demands of the job. Thus cognitive ability, mobility, and person-job match are all dimensions of the theory.
Cognitive Ability, Mobility, and Person-Job Match
Although the context within which workers are moving, the labor market or the market where workers find work and organizations find employees, was a focus of mobility researchers for years, the gravitational hypothesis placed a lens specifically on workers’ characteristics. The state of the labor market, such as whether jobs were plentiful or not, was a key contextual factor for the frequency and type of worker mobility. Frequency is the rate or speed with which workers move across jobs in the labor market. Type of mobility is the direction of movement: upward, downward, or lateral. In some research, type of mobility is determined by the change in the salary of the work. An upward move denotes a move to a job with a higher salary than the job held previously, a downward move denotes a move to a job with a lower salary than the job held previously, and a lateral move denotes a move to a job with the same salary as that held previously. In a labor market where jobs are plentiful, workers are expected to move more frequently and have greater opportunities to move to work with higher wages. The worker’s characteristics played a decidedly backseat role in the mobility process.
The gravitational hypothesis suggested that worker characteristics, specifically general cognitive ability, should play a more central role in understanding the mobility of workers in the labor market. Moreover, type of mobility should relate directly to whether or not workers gravitate to work that matches their cognitive ability level. Upward moves suggest a move to work of greater cognitive demands than the work held previously. Downward moves would suggest a move to work of lesser cognitive demands and lateral moves would suggest a move to work of the same cognitive demands compared with the job held previously. Although higher salaries were always preferred over lower ones, this conceptualization of mobility type requires a more complicated calculus to determine whether one move would be preferred to another. Both worker cognitive ability and job cognitive demands need to be considered and the match between them evaluated. Sometimes improving the match requires a move down in job demands and sometimes it requires a move up.
Sorting workers both up and down in terms of cognitive demands runs counter to many views of mobility as generally upward. Further, there are some theories, such as the Peter Principle, that suggest that workers will be promoted to the point above their competencies. The gravitational hypothesis argues that when workers find themselves in work beyond their capabilities, they are more likely to gravitate to work with lower cognitive demands than to either stay in the job or move further upward. That is, over employment, work beyond worker capability, is more likely to lead to a shift downward in an effort to create greater parity between worker capability and job demands. Likewise, underemployment, work that is beneath worker capability, is believed to more likely lead to a shift upward to work that has higher cognitive demands. Whether the worker or the organization is the catalyst for change, such as if the worker quits or is fired, is not differentiated in the theory. Regardless of the direction of movement or the catalyst for the change (e.g., worker or organization), moves that improve the match between workers’ cognitive ability and the work’s cognitive demands are preferred according to this theory.
Thus the gravitational hypothesis suggests a dynamic model of person-job match. Person-job match, the match between person characteristics or desires and the demands or characteristics of the job, can be measured on a variety of dimensions. If a person desires a flexible schedule, finding a job that provides flexibility is considered a good match on this dimension. If a person has a preference for a certain type of workplace culture, finding an organization with such a culture would be a good match on this dimension. The gravitational hypothesis focuses on one dimension of person-job match, the match between worker cognitive ability and work cognitive demands. It is important to note that a person may be seeking match on a variety of these dimensions simultaneously, making fully explicating the matching process difficult. Indeed, matching is a process, one that the gravitation hypothesis acknowledges directly. Gravitation is about movement or change, and the gravitational hypothesis is about movement that leads to improved match between worker ability and the cognitive demands of the work.
Originally, the gravitational hypothesis was developed by job analysis researchers who observed that workers with long job tenures were more likely to have the capability to meet the demands of the work, suggesting that match encouraged stability. Workers still seeking match were more likely to leave jobs and organizations. Indeed, research has found a common outcome of mismatch between workers and their work turnover. Other outcomes of mismatch are low satisfaction and performance. Thus achieving match between workers and their jobs is beneficial to both organizations and workers. A matched employee is more likely to be satisfied, to perform better, and to have long job tenure. The probability of match may be increased through careful recruiting and selection practices that allow both applicants and prospective employers the opportunity to share information that allows for assessment of match quality.
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- Peter, L. (1969). The Peter Principle. New York: Morrow.
- Wilk, S. L., Demarais, L. B., & Sackett, P. R. (1995). Gravitation to jobs commensurate with ability: Longitudinal and cross-sectional tests. Journal of Applied Psychology, 80, 79-85.
- Wilk, S. L., & Sackett, P. R. (1996). Longitudinal analysis of ability-job complexity fit and job change. Personnel Psychology, 49, 937-967.