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Prescreening for Aptitude (with Simulation)

August 18th, 2021

We now know that individual differences in performance largely reflect differences in the amount of time people have spent engaged in deliberate practice, i.e. activities specifically designed to improve performance.

But recent research about experts [Hambrick et al. 2016] suggests that some variance is due to other factors. For example, when learning a new language, the age at which you start learning is important, especially for mastering accents (the sounds words make, not just the words themselves).

But the factor most often cited by trainers of heavy equipment operators is typically called “aptitude” (sometimes “mechanical aptitude”). And many trainers continue to believe that young people “coming off the farm” are thought to have more aptitude, and are therefore able to learn faster and become more proficient than born-in-the-city counterparts.

At Simlog, we have good evidence that there is indeed some kind of “aptitude” at play, but it has little to with where you were born. Instead, industrial psychologists have identified three kinds of innate abilities important for operating heavy equipment:

  • various “psycho-motor” abilities associated with manual dexterity, i.e. moving fingers, hands, arms, and feet at the same time
  • a “sensory/perceptual” ability associated with hearing, seeing, and especially depth perception
  • a “cognitive” ability associated with thinking about spatial orientation, i.e. keeping track of where things are in space (what’s in front, what’s behind, etc.)

(In [Ericsson and Pool 2016], the authors use the word “talent” instead, and speculate that for some people, deliberate practice “comes” more easily because of the way that their brains work. And that’s why, for two people tasked with the same deliberate practice, one person might learn more quickly and go on to achieve a higher level of performance.)

And we have good evidence that the right kind of simulation can properly test these abilities, to pre-screen training candidates for operator “aptitude”. You might be surprised to learn that in a group of ten people, we have good evidence that you’ll likely find 2 or 3 that don’t have enough, and ought to be encouraged to train for other kinds of work (instead of operating heavy equipment).

In any case, the bottom line is just this: regardless of where you came into the world (or the age at which you learn to operate heavy equipment), simulator-based training based on the principles of deliberate practice will help you become the best operator you can be. And that’s good news for you and your employer.

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Other blog posts about Operator Aptitude


[Coyle 2009] Daniel Coyle, The Talent Code, Random House, 2009.

[Ericsson 2006] K. Anders Ericsson, “The Influence of Experience and Deliberate Practice on the Development of Superior Expert Performance”, Chapter 18, The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, Cambridge University Press, June 2006.

[Ericsson and Pool 2016] K. Anders Ericsson, R. Pool, PEAK: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016.

[Hambrick et al 2016] David Hambrick, Brooke Macnamara, Guillermo Campitelli, Fredrik Ullen, Miriam Mosing, “Beyond Born versus Made: a new look at expertise”, Psychology of Learning and Motivation – Advances in Research and Theory,