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Cognitive Biases that lead to bad hiring
  • Technology
  • Jan 05 2023

Cognitive biases are unconscious errors in thinking which happen when our brain switches to autopilot. 

Autopilot is generally a good thing. It means that our brains are not running at full speed all the time, allowing us to multitask and relax, but when this leads to cognitive biases, that is a bad thing for business. 

Conducting an interview is a textbook example of the sort of situation where your brain will look to switch on some of the autopilot controls. Whilst the interviewer is rarely the most pressured person in the room, they are having to keep mentally agile; juggling the asking of questions, comprehension, and grading of answers, whilst also making the interviewee feel relaxed and at ease. 

That is a lot to be thinking about, and the effect can be even more pronounced for an experienced interviewer, as they are more likely to fall into autopilot and let their gut take over, leading to biases creeping in. 

All good interviewers will have techniques to allow their decision-making not to be affected by the most common biases, but what about when autopilot begins to switch on? 

The best way to work past biases is to be aware of where and how they can manifest. With this, interviewers can remain switched on and make better (conscious) decisions. In this article, we look at some of the most common biases that can affect interviews. 

In-Group Bias

This is one of the most common biases when interviewing someone. Simply put, people trust others who are in the same group as they are. 

Good interviewers will always be aware of the overt groups; race, gender, social class (and so on), but what happens when an interviewee strikes up a conversation about keto dieting, your favorite sports team, or even coffee?

Yes, your choice of hot drink can lead to you favoring them due to an in-group bias. 

What you shouldn’t do is swerve away from these conversations, but always bear in mind that adoration for Sumatran Single Origin won’t improve performance within your team. 

The Halo Effect

Have you ever envied someone because they are just... so damn good at everything? That is likely a result of The Halo Effect. It says that one positive trait can spill over into an overall impression of someone. The most common example of this is people judging attractive people more positively, thinking they have higher morality, better mental health, and greater intelligence. 

But when interviewing we need to be careful, because the Halo Effect manifests almost everywhere. Is someone very well-dressed? Are they a patron of a charity? Did they answer one question incredibly well? Any of these things could put a halo on them, leading you to misjudge other answers. 

The Noble Edge Effect

Linked closely to the Halo Effect, The Noble Edge Effect states that people respect ethics and charity, especially if it is not brought up by them. For example, if someone says that they donate to a charity in an interview, the interviewer will likely see this as a ploy to gain favor. 

But if the interviewee has ‘Food Bank Volunteer of the Month’ on their CV, they are far more likely to develop that halo effect.

Kano Delight Bias

Kano's theory is pretty simple. When we get something unexpected, the level of delight we get out of it is vastly greater than its actual value. 

This one is tricky. It is usually a good thing if an interviewee delights you by providing an unexpected bit of value, but what separates a good answer from a cognitive bias the substance behind the unexpected answer. 

An example of the Kano Model in action is latte art. 

People used to be tricked into drinking lower-quality coffee by putting latte art on top of it, but as this has become more common (so is no longer unexpected) the effect is negated. 

In an interview situation, this manifests when someone gives an ‘out of the box’ answer to a question that the interviewer has asked many times:

“Talk about a time you have overcome a challenge”
“Well, when I was rescuing penguins in the Antartic…”

Don’t let the unexpected delight (and perhaps a bit of Halo effect) from the above answer cloud your judgment on the substance!

The Humor Effect 

People remember, and engage with funny responses more than with dry ones; but is this a bad bias?

In some roles, the ability to be engaging with the team, customers, and stakeholders is vital, but in others, it is at the very most a ‘nice to have’. As interviewers, we need to understand the requirements of the role and, on some occasions let the biases in.

The Zeigarnik Effect  

It could be argued that this only comes up as the result of bad interviewing. The theory states that people remember incomplete tasks better, so, if an interviewee is providing an answer and is interrupted by someone on the panel; you are more likely to remember the pieces of the answer they provided so far. 

Whilst this could be both positive or negative depending on the substance of the answer, it is important to bear in mind. 

The easiest way to negate this bias is to always let people complete their answers fully... Which is less simple when you have multiple people on the panel.  

The Curiosity Tendency

In a similar vein to the ‘Zeigarnik Effect, the Curiosity Tendency occurs when people tell incomplete stories. People will be more engaged and reflect more positively on a story if it lacks an ending. 

For example, if you asked “what is a professional task you are proud of” and two respondents provided the same task as an answer, one had everything complete and the other was still finishing bits off (so perhaps doesn’t have the final results), counterintuitively, the second example would often score higher. 

The Pratfall Effect

This is another example of a cognitive bias that may also be a genuine positive in an interview, but as with all of these examples it is important for us to know so we don’t over-reward examples of it. 

The effect is simple, if we see someone who we believe to be good at something makes an error, it makes them even more appealing, and the effect also remains when these people talk about the error they made. 

The Serial Position Effect

The final bias is perhaps the most prevalent in interviews. As humans, we tend to remember the first and last pieces of a sequence better than everything in the middle. 

This affects interviews, because it not only puts the first and last interviewees at an advantage, it puts the questions asked first and last to be more prominent. 

This effect, as with all others on the list can be discounted by good interview process and practice. Below are some key takeaways to negate biases and ensure you are able to hire the best people for your roles:

-    Create a grading matrix to provide a level playing field 
-    Ensure all interviewers are given the matrix and fully understand the success criteria for the role
-    Assign someone to take clear notes with a defined process, not just transcribing every word
-    If using a video interview platform, record the interview for later review
-    Share this article with others on the interview panel, because the more you are aware of the biases, the less they will affect you

There are hundreds of other biases that could affect interviews, but by following the above tips, you will be in a good position to navigate away from them. 

If you would like to discover how Hamlyn Williams can assist you in building interview processes and strategies, head to our contact page to find details for your local office. 

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Sam Roberts
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