“Going with your gut” – part 1
Most employers rely heavily on interviews in recruiting. However, there’s evidence that the method of choosing candidates based on general impressions from an interview is barely more accurate than a coin toss.1 evaluations of interviews conducted in the israeli defence forces to assign soldiers to various branches, for example, suggested that the procedure was almost completely useless at predicting the future success of recruits. 2
Multiple studies indicate that the interview process is far from perfect : that interview performance is a poor predictor of job performance 3, and that it’s often overvalued relative to other assessment methods (such as aptitude tests and references) 4. This is pretty worrying when we think about how much difference hiring the best candidate for an important job can make. It might sound crazy, but maybe we should stop interviewing people…
Why can interviewing lead to bad hiring decisions?
Judging which candidate has the best chance of success in a job is far from easy. We have to consider a huge number of different factors and then combine them together in the right way. This is difficult even in theory, let alone in practice! This means interviewers tend to rely on shortcuts to make their decisions.
There’s a more general problem being highlighted here. When faced with uncertainty, people often resort to following their intuitions: which can lead to bad decisions.
Going with your gut
Interviews encourage “going with your gut” – hiring the candidate who just “feels right.” Evidence suggests that interviewers often make decisions in the first few minutes of meeting a candidate! 5 And lasting impressions of candidates can massively influence the decisions that are made post-interview.
This is partly explained by what’s known as the affect heuristic: we tend to let our emotions influence our decisions more than perhaps we should. Rather than attempt to answer the difficult question “Which candidate will be better at the job?”, many people instead opt to answer the much simpler one, “Which candidate do I like more?” But the most likeable candidate isn’t always the one who’ll do the job best.
Who would you hire?
Suppose you’re looking to fill a postdoctoral position in a high impact research area like vaccine development. The search has been narrowed down to the following two candidates:
Sarah has just completed her PhD. She gave a sparkling and enthusiastic interview performance, blowing everyone away. However, she has no substantial track record of productive research.
Ruth has held a postdoctoral research position for the past three years. She has been incredibly productive during this time, and her research record is excellent. However, her interview performance was less sparkling than Sarah’s and she came across as very shy.
Who would you choose? For many people, intuition favours Sarah. She left a stronger impression and was more likeable; it’s hard not to be swayed by this. So let’s say you give the position to Sarah. You’re disappointed to find that once she starts her research, she’s not quite as exceptional as you thought she might be. (Although you should really have predicted this, if you knew anything about regression toward the mean) Her inexperience means it takes her a while to get into the swing of research. She does a pretty good job regardless, helping to develop a vaccine which ends up saving hundreds of lives per year.
What if you’d hired Ruth instead? Perhaps you were put off by her shyness initially. However, you probably would have soon realised it didn’t matter much in research. Her experience would probably have made her slightly more productive than Sarah, and she wouldn’t have needed the same time to get into the swing of things 6. So she might have sped up the development of the vaccine by, say, a couple of months. This may not seem like a huge difference, but it might mean saving an extra 50 odd lives. No big deal?
The danger of first impressions
Not only can they be vastly inaccurate, but first impressions can taint any further judgements we make of someone. If our first impression of someone is good, we’re more likely to rate them highly in other ways. Sarah’s immediate likeability may mean we judge her as more motivated and hardworking than she really is, for example.
The problem with gut judgements
Choosing who to hire is hard because we can’t be sure how accurately we’ve judged each candidate, or predict who will really do the best job. What makes it even harder is that it may be months or even years down the line until we can tell whether our decision was a good one or not. So we can’t even learn from mistakes very easily.
There are a lot of situations like this in everyday life: where it’s hard to predict things because there’s so much to consider, and it’s a long time before we’ll know whether we were right or not. Other examples include predicting:
- your grades at the end of the year
- how likely a new business is to succeed
- how likely criminals are to reoffend
- who’ll win the football match
- how much that bottle of Bordeaux will be worth in a few years
There’s a lot of evidence that “gut feelings” aren’t much use in situations like this 7. There’s just too much uncertainty and unpredictability. (More accurately, we can use our gut, but we have to be careful how we do it – we’ll talk about this in the next couple of posts)
What does this mean for your career?
Choosing a career has a lot in common with the examples given above. There are a lot of different factors to consider, a huge number of unknowns, and it can be a long time before we get any kind of feedback on whether our decision was a good one or not. So we’d expect our intuitions to be similarly unreliable. In the next few posts I’ll discuss:
- Why a simple model might sometimes be better
- When going with your gut might still be useful
- What all this means for your career decisions
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References and Notes
There’s a great summary of the literature on interviews, with some positive suggestions for improving the interview process, here (written particularly in relation to university selection interviews, but with much broader implications)
A meta-analysis of studies on the validity of interviews found the overall correlation between interview score and actual
performance was .274 (variance .023); this is only marginally better than chance. Marchese, Marc C., and Paul M. Murchinsky (1993), “The Validity of the Employment Interview: A Meta-Analysis”. International Journal of Selection and Assessment, vol. 1, pp. 1826. ↩
Daniel Kahneman, “Thinking Fast and Slow” (Penguin Books) ↩
Robbins, S. P., & Judge, T. A. (2011). Organizational behavior (14th ed.). Upper Saddle
River, NJ: Prentice Hall. ↩
Dougherty, T. W., Turban, D. B., & Callender, J. C. (1994). Confirming first impressions
in the employment interview: A field study of interviewer behavior. Journal of
Applied Psychology, 79, 659-665. ↩
That track record is a good predictor of success is fairly widely accepted, although there don’t seem to be any clearly documented studies demonstrating this. The link might be explained by the fact that track record is a good indicator of qualities like conscientiousness, which is a good predictor of success. ↩
See Chapter 14 of Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking Fast and Slow” (2011, Penguin Books) ↩