Hiring and the Limitations of Human Perception

Our minds are incredible things; constantly examining, assessing, sorting inputs and data to make decisions at an incredible pace. These quick judgements are often correct and valuable, but not always. Sometimes though, these snap judgements are very wrong, due to what psychologists call “fundamental attribution errors”.

This recent article, Why Unqualified Candidates Get Hired Anyway, outlines research into why these errors of judgement occur and how they result in bad personnel selection or admission decisions. One study, for example, compared the evaluation of fictional candidates up for a promotion, where some had performed well in an easy role, and others less well in a more difficult role. Time and time again, the business executives in the study discounted the difficulty of the job and preferred those with the “better” performance.

And the research gets even more striking: when the difference in the relative difficulty of a prior task was explicitly explained to the decision makers (in this case choosing individuals to bet on based on their prior performance in a game), they still chose those with better results and ignored the situation in which the performance was demonstrated. To put this another way, given the choice between a candidate that has produced excellent results in an easy role and one that produced good results in a challenging role, even experienced and trained people would tend to choose the former, irrespective of the comparable nature of the prior work situation to the new one.

What does this mean for people making hiring decisions? It means we have to be aware of how our minds can work against us and that we can protect ourselves against errors and biases by implementing applicant screening and selection processes. Some ideas:

  • Don’t just look for candidates that have delivered great results; take into account the situation in which those results were achieved.
  • Stress, high workloads and distractions can increase our propensity to make the errors described above. Ensure the selection process is not rushed and time is allowed for reflecting on each candidate.
  • Use other tools that are not prone to biases, such as psychometric testing, for assessing the applicants’ suitability for the role.

We’d like to hear you thoughts and experiences, please add your comments below.

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