3 common biases that you are bringing to every interview

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Whilst the tradition of the face-to-face interview remains a cornerstone of the recruitment process, it is a method that is fraught with subjectivity, vagueness and undefined criteria such as ‘cultural fit’ and ‘the X factor’. This is compounded by the fact that the interview is often conducted by individuals who aren’t entirely certain about what they are doing (or worse still are absolutely certain they know what they’re doing).

It’s not surprising then that the traditional interview can lead to uncertain results.

When you factor in the not inconsiderable cost of hiring the wrong person, then bad decision-making during the interview process can be fatal to a small company or counter productive to a team.

So what causes this bad decision-making? What causes us to pick the ‘wrong’ person from a bunch that probably does include the ‘right’ person, if only we could see them?

The answer is of course many things. But one of the major factors influencing bad decision making in an interview is something called heuristics.

In the face of uncertainty we, as a species, are hardwired to fall back on survival mechanisms called heuristics; the process whereby our brain makes quick, essential decisions, shortcutting past more thorough, deliberate rationalising.

Heuristics are essential for our survival and have provided us with rapid and effective decision making throughout our evolution: from running from sabre tooth tigers to deciding we can trust a new business contact.

But with heuristics come their less productive by product: bias.

“Bias!” you exclaim incredulously.

“I don’t make decisions based on bias” you retort confidently.

“I’m open minded me” you say with confidence.

Well you’re wrong. One of the most effective tools in your brains heuristic toolbox is bias. Everyone makes decisions based on bias, every second of every day. Bias keeps us safe and alive, bias helps us learn, bias is what has got our species to point it is at now (not necessarily a good thing you might pithily add)

Bias may be what keeps us alive but it can also guide us to decisions that may hinder us in our business dealings and one such area is the interview.

Here are three common heuristics, and corresponding biases, that may be hindering your interview process and therefore your ability to grow your business.

Availability heuristics

We make decisions based on examples that easily come to mind, so we often lean towards giving more weight to prominent information and disregarding less memorable examples.

For instance, many people, if asked, would state that they fear terrorism and yet the list of things more likely, and much more mundane, that could end our existence is long. However we all can recall examples of terrorism but diabetes (of which we are over 1000 times more likely to die from in Australia) is less easy to recall and we therefore put more weight to fearing terrorism than we should.

Interviewing bias resulting from the availability heuristic
Ease of Recall Bias

We make biased decisions based upon information we can recall. More dramatic instances will stand out above less vivid instances. When making decisions about people this bias will also come into play. The Ease of Recall bias means that we will take an attribute of the person we are making a decision about, and will recall an example of someone from our memory with that attribute and will link the two.

For example:

You are interviewing a candidate from another country. You have worked with plenty of people from that country before but there was one guy who was extremely lazy and who became very difficult to get rid of. You were glad to see the back of him when he finally went. The guy you are interviewing now has a very similar accent and mannerisms.

Your bias will ensure that it is far easier to recall this bad experience than the many more good ones because it is more dramatic. The same can be said for significant positive experiences you have had with people that cause a positive bias.

This skew doesn’t need to be as dramatic as out and out sexism or racism, but it can tip your decision making for, or against, certain candidates.

Representativeness Heuristic

Our brains filter and sort information based upon assumptions we automatically make about prominent attributes of the item being sorted. In a similar way that animals and plants are sorted into categories based upon common attributes, so our brains make sweeping assumptions. Whilst this is useful when dealing with most of the things we sort, it can be detrimental to us when we deal with stereotypes.

This is particularly noticeable when this heuristic leads us to make assumptions about people. At its most abhorrent this can lead to racism and sexism, in less extreme situations it can lead us to make assumptions based upon limited information and to not follow a rational decision making process.

Interviewing bias resulting from the representativeness heuristic
The Conjunction Fallacy

A classic example used to demonstrate the conjunction fallacy is as follows;

Linda is 31 years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations.

Which is more probable?

a. Linda is a bank teller.
b. Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.

Research shows that the vast majority of people will answer b. but in reality the probability of two things occurring together (conjunction) cannot be more probable than one of the events occurring. It cannot be more likely that I own a blue car than it is that I own any car.

However, people will use the information given and mental heuristics will form a biased opinion of someone regardless of the probability rules of conjunction. This bias proves the power of assumption over logic.

Positive hypothesis testing heuristic

Answer this. People who frequently smokemarijuana are lazy. True or false.

To answer this you are likely to have recalled marijuana users that you know and then try and remember if they are lazy.

In reality, to make a rational decision not based on heuristics you would need to recall 4 groups
Marijuana users who are lazy
Marijuana users who are not lazy
Non-marijuana users who are lazy
Non-marijuana users who are not lazy

And then consider each to see if the statement is true.

Interview bias resulting from positive hypothesis testing heuristic
Confirmation bias
This tendency to search for examples which confirm a hypothesis has profound effects on our hiring decisions. When under the pressure of hiring we will often search for information which not only has incomplete logic behind it, but will actively search for examples from our memories, or new information which confirms our existing views.

This tendency to try and confirm a pre-existing opinion can be both a negative bias (we have concerns about the individual, so we search for examples to confirm them) or a positive bias (we want them to be right for the job so look for information to confirm this view and ignore signs that this may not be the case).

Heuristics are evolutionary tools that have ensured the survival of many species. They continue to be an extremely efficient method for us to sort information, categorise almost everything and make (mostly) accurate decisions. The millions of tiny decisions we make each day based upon heuristics are made extremely efficiently.

However, an awareness of the biases that come from these heuristics can make us better in many aspects of our lives, including our ability to interview effectively. As we move towards a globalised economy, and diversity becomes a competitive advantage, the ability to interview and overcome our own biases to truly identify the best person for a role can become a game changer.