Did you know that your chance of getting a job is better if your resume is screened on a sunny day than on a rainy day? Unfortunately, rational decision-making only appears in theory. In fact, many decisions that we make are biased or at least in some parts irrational, but also predictably irrational. This article is about the sources of irrationality in selection decisions like the employment interview and how you can avoid them.

Fundamental attribution error

In social psychology, attribution involves making inferences about the behaviors of others as well as events around us. The basic principle: Peoples’ behavior depends on two things: First of all, the person itself including their skills, knowledge, abilities, personality and other characteristics, and secondly the situation. And the last one can make a big difference. People tend to systematically overestimate the influence of someone’s characteristics and underestimate situational factors. This bias is called fundamental attribution error.

Let’s see what happens when this error occurs in job interviews:

Imagine you have two candidates: John Smith and Tim Doe. They both apply for a position as sales representative at your company. In their last positions, John increased sales from $800,000 a year up two $1,000,000, while Tim increased sales from $1,080,000 up to $1,100,000. Who would you hire?

If there are not other apparent differences between John and Tim, you probably would give the job to John. The problem exists in asking how comparable the situations really are and which part of their respective sales results are due to disposition and aptitude. One example: If John tells you that he worked for a technology company that launched a new product that the market had been waiting quite a long time for, his performance would look even worse. Why did he not double this amount? On the other hand, if Tim worked for a vendor using only old telephones with dial plates, you would think that his performance was extraordinary.

This example is quite simple, but there are a lot of situations where it is very hard to judge how “easy” or “hard” the circumstances were.

What can I do to avoid this attribution error?

  1. Extend the role that behavioral interviewing has in your job interview by asking more contextual questions. Ask questions about competitors and resources to get a better impression of the context in which the candidate’s action took place.

  2. The use of anchored ranking scales has proven to reduce and neglect a lot of decision bias and distortion.

  3. Never show yourself to be in an excellent mood as a recruiter. That is no joke because the fundamental attribution error will be stronger when you are in a good mood compared to a bad one! At least that’s what a study found (Forgas, 1998).

Everything is relative – and so are candidates, right?

Imagine you have three interviews all on the same day for a sales position that must be filled. There are two candidates with almost the same competencies: Tim and John. You cannot really judge who is the better candidate, because they previously worked in very different sectors with very different products and market structures. Now, there is a third candidate. Let’s call him Jack. Jack worked in the same industry as Tim, but Jack is less skilled than Tim.

Which candidate do you hire now? The vast majority will now hire Tim instead of John, even if they first were unable to decide. But now, there is someone you can compare Tim to (Jack). Compared to Jack, Tim seems smarter.

How can candidates possibly benefit from this error?

If you are applying for a job, simply have your friend apply for the same position and just make sure that he seems slightly less competent than you, but overall quite comparable. The same principle works out in the bar, if you’re looking for a new partner. Choose a “wingman” that is slightly less attractive than you but overall quite comparable, so you will be seen as even more attractive… (but never tell your friend the true reason why you always ask them to join for the night).

Distance matters – What happens when technology replaces a face-to-face interview?

When you use technology in interviewing instead of face-to-face, circumstances change. The social presence will be lower and psychological distance higher, because you are not sitting in front of your candidate.
As a result, your attribution style is changing. If candidates give a bad answer to your question, most people tend to say, “OK, the candidate is nervous, the question was not so fair, etc.”, which means they will overestimate the situational context.

When the psychological distance is higher, which is the case for pre-recorded video interviews, for example, people prove to be more accurate in evaluating the candidate’s abilities, without the distracting environment. As social presence is lower, they focus more on objectively rating specific dimensions of aptitude. Therefore, we highly recommend using innovative technology such as pre-recorded video interviewing to ensure an unbiased evaluation of your candidate’s skills. Then you can be sure you make the right selection decision.

If you want to learn more about how video recruiting can keep you from making irrational decisions in personnel selection, schedule a consultation call with our experts right away.

Further readings:
  • Forgas, J. P. (1998). On being happy and mistaken: Mood effects on the fundamental attribution error. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75(2), 318-331.
  • Ross, L. (1977). The intuitive psychologist and his shortcomings: Distortions in the attribution process. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (vol. 10). New York: Academic Press.
  • Silvester, J., & Anderson, N. (2003). Technology and discourse: A comparison of face-to-face and telephone employment interviews. International Journal of Selection and Assessment, 11(2-3), 206-214. doi: 10.1111/1468-2389.00244.