The Psychology behind Job Interviews

No matter how many you’ve given in the past, the next job interview will always make you a lot more nervous than it should. Although we’ve probably had multiple one-on-one interactions with others in the past, the closed environment, the unarticulated expectations or criteria the interviewer is using to judge the candidate, the varying dynamics of the interviewer and interviewee, the way the candidate presents themself, as well as a lot of other factors, are considered in the moment. A job interview involves human interaction, which is where several concepts from social psychology come into play. 

Why should I know about this?

As humans, we tend to create mental shortcuts for ourselves that allow us to efficiently solve problems and formulate decisions and judgements, with minimal cognitive effort. Although this has been a cognitive mechanism (evolved over generations) that has benefited us in terms of forming quick decisions for our survival as cavemen/cavewomen (eg. when encountering a predator), they can also lead to cognitive biases –  systematic errors we make when we’re processing and interpreting information presented to us which, in turn, affects our decisions and judgements. 

The accuracy of these quick decisions varies due to multiple factors such as limited time, a limited amount of information at our disposal, overall intelligence as well as the accuracy of our perceptions. Due to these reasons, we require quick solutions.

At the end of the day, interviewers are people just like us, and they are prone to cognitive biases too. Many studies have been conducted that show certain techniques we can use to overcome the interviewer’s unconscious biases, and we can, to some extent, have some control over the interviewer’s focus and impressions.

Here are a few tips, backed by scientific research, that may be helpful to you in your next job interview:

First impressions matter.

Although this is quite cliché and is an understood fact by most candidates going into their interviews, it is still important to stress upon. The psychological reason behind why we plan to arrive 10 minutes earlier, dress appropriately, and style our hair before we go is due to the primacy effect. This effect states that we tend to remember the first information presented about something better than information presented in the middle. This can be explained through the Multi-store model of memory by Atkinson & Shiffrin. Our brains have had enough time to be encoded into our long-term memory stores.

Source:  https://sites.google.com/site/psychologyapp/cognitive-psychology/the-multi-store-model 

In this manner, the interviewer may form expectations of you based on, for example, the firmness of your handshake, eye contact, and how you respond to small talk.

A study conducted by researchers at Northeastern University where participants were shown videos of strangers talking to each other for the first time, asked them to rate their intelligence. The participants rated strangers who made the most eye contact, the highest on intelligence. So make sure to look your interviewer in the eye while you’re conversing with them.

Your choice of clothing also greatly impacts the interviewer’s impression of you, and a lot of it has to do with research done within the field of color psychology. A survey was conducted by CareerBuilder and Harris Interactive with hiring managers and human resource professionals that showed that matching the color of your outfit to the impression you want to create makes a huge difference. These were the results derived from the study (blue being the most recommended color and orange being the least):

Blue

Preferred by 23% of the hiring professionals who took part in the survey as it sends the message that you’re trustworthy, credible, and a team-player. Lisa Johnson Mandell from AOL Jobs has recommended wearing navy blue as it “aspires confidence.” That being said, you may want to reconsider wearing blue if you’re going for a more creative job interview as you may risk being perceived as conservative.

Black

Preferred by 15% of the survey respondents. This color has been ranked the highest on the authority scale by color experts as it suggests leadership potential. It has been highly recommended to wear black if you’re applying for management positions. You must still be careful of wearing black as you wouldn’t want to overpower the interviewer if you’re applying for positions like an assistant or an intern.

Grey

Shows that you are logical and analytical. It is also another safe option to go for if you wish to land a job in any industry. If you’re applying to a more creative field, you can accessorize using other colors.

White

Shows that you are organized, impartial, and detail-oriented. 

Red

Shows power, boldness, and assertiveness. However, hiring managers may perceive it to be rebellious and dominating. This color may be a great fit for jobs like sales and law positions, where assertiveness is necessary and is a preferred quality, but may send the wrong message for other positions.

Brown

Shows that you are dependable, reliable, and comforting. Although this color doesn’t have any negative connotations to it, you may come off as old-fashioned and simple, which may not be good since hiring managers are usually looking for modern and forward-thinking employees. You may as well avoid this color altogether.

Orange

25% of the survey respondents chose this as the worst color to wear at a job interview as it shows unprofessionalism. No further questions asked; it’s a big no-no.

Lastly, don’t underestimate the power of the small-talk with your interviewer before they officially begin with the questions. This is the perfect opportunity for you to start building rapport with the interviewer, and hopefully establish some common ground with them too. A recent study carried out by the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, conducted 163 mock interviews where there would be a few minutes of small talk, followed by 12 specific job-questions. Then, the interviewers were asked to rate applicants’ competence. The results showed that those who successfully built a connection with their interviewers, in the beginning, were rated higher than those who failed to build rapport initially, even if they did equally well on the specific job-related questions. This clearly shows that the interviewers’ first impressions colored their overall impressions.

Last impressions matter too!

Funnily enough, your last impressions could be just as important as your first one. The recency effect is our tendency to remember the most recently presented information the best. This effect explains why the last few things a person says to us tend to shape our overall impression. According to the Atkinson-Shiffrin memory model, we’re able to remember that information clearly since we’ve paid attention to it, so it has entered our short-term memory.

Hence, if you’re able to effectively summarize why you’re the best person for this position by highlighting your strengths and traits and how you’ll use them to the company’s benefit. Thanking them properly after the interview is over and having 1-2 interesting questions prepared for them beforehand (in case they ask “Do you have any questions for me?”, which they probably will) can go a long way.

The serial position effect is when we’re able to recall the information presented in the beginning and the end the best, and the information in the middle, the worst (combines the primacy and recency effects). This can be seen in the graph shown below:

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serial-position_effect 

Find a common point with your interviewer. 

Although I’d mentioned this in my first point, I’d also recommend continuing this throughout your interview. According to the similarity-attraction hypothesis, individuals are attracted to others similar to themselves (“birds of a feather flock together”). So even the strictest employer will subconsciously like and trust a candidate if they have something in common with them.

How may you find commonality with an interviewer who may be the complete opposite of you? The perfect chance for you to find out is when you’re asked the usual “tell me about yourself” question. If you share your personal experiences (eg. you’re a first-generation student) and highlight your values or what you believe in, you’re able to build an emotional bridge between the interviewer and yourself. Once that is built, no matter what age or background the interviewer comes from, they are more likely to relate to you in one way or another. Even if you may not be the ideal candidate for them, the similarity attraction will definitely work in your favor.

Mirror the interviewer’s body language. 

The old saying goes “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” and the psychology of mirroring supports this statement. The scientific term for it is limbic synchrony and from an evolutionary perspective, being synchronized with other members in your group was essential for survival. (Fun fact: even before we’re born, the heartbeats of the mother and the baby in her uterus are in-sync).

Mirroring is a non-verbal behavior we employ that indicates a major sign of trust. For example, when you go outside, you may notice that couples usually tend to walk in step. This indicates a certain level of comfort and trust. It gives us a better way to understand, connect with others, and let them know that you’re listening and paying attention. The chameleon effect describes that people who exhibit similar body language tend to like each other more. If you’re not able to keep up with similar actions, you may come off as being uninterested in what they’re saying or that you aren’t a team player. So, if your interviewer smiles at you or leans forward in his chair, doing the same gesture with the same level of intensity can go a longer way than you think.

Speak expressively and don’t be afraid to go off-script.

As mentioned in “Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior” by Leonard Mlodinow, expressive speech, while modulating your pitch and volume (not monotonous), shows that you are confident and credible. You will be perceived as more enthusiastic and intellectual. Avoid speaking monotonously and decrease noticeable pauses as much as possible. The last thing you want to do is bore the interviewer with your responses. 

Through your expressive language, if you’re able to use storytelling and bring up anecdotes, you’ll be able to build an emotional, empathetic bond with your interviewer. Talking more about what you believe in and your passion will only bring you more brownie points.

Certain words are likely to put off employers. A study conducted by Russell and colleagues showed that slight hesitations and overusing the word “like” may significantly reduce your chances of landing a job. That being said, this rule is more accurate for recruiters older than the ages of 30 or 40. Younger recruiters are comparatively less picky.

Lastly, don’t be afraid to go off-script. The interview being carried out is likely to follow a structured format. Hence, there’s a chance that the interviewers might be bored themselves. For example, if the interviewer asks you to tell them about yourself or to give them a run through your resumé, don’t be afraid to say “let me tell you what’s not on my resumé!” This exuberates confidence and shows that you can also be an unconventional forward-thinker.

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During a job interview, a lot of things are more important than you might think. I hope these become secrets to your success. 

Good luck with job hunting and your interview processes!

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References & Citations:

  1. “10 Psychological Tricks for Job Interviews That Can Make Recruiters Fight for You.” BrightSide, 20 Nov. 2019, brightside.me/inspiration-psychology/10-psychological-tricks-for-job-interviews-that-can-make-recruiters-fight-for-you-794834/. 
  2. Allen, Terina. “The 5 Best Interview Questions Candidates Ask During Job Interviews.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 11 May 2020, http://www.forbes.com/sites/terinaallen/2020/01/30/the-5-best-interview-questions-candidates-ask-during-job-interviews/. 
  3. Bourne, Leah. “What Colors You Should-And Shouldn’t-Wear To a Job Interview.” IMDiversity, 2018, imdiversity.com/diversity-news/what-colors-you-should-and-shouldnt-wear-to-a-job-interview/. 
  4. Cherry, Kendra. “How Heuristics Help You Make Quick Decisions or Biases.” Verywell Mind, 10 Jan. 2020, http://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-a-heuristic-2795235. 
  5. Hosie, Rachel. “Researchers Have Found the Key to Doing Well in a Job Interview.” The Independent, Independent Digital News and Media, 30 Nov. 2016, http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/key-doing-well-job-interview-good-small-talk-study-claims-a7447341.html. 
  6. Kelly, Alannagh. “The Psychology of Mirroring.” Imagine Health, 31 Oct. 2017, imaginehealth.ie/the-psychology-of-mirroring/. 
  7. Murphy, Nora A., et al. “Accurate Intelligence Assessments in Social Interactions: Mediators and Gender Effects.” Journal of Personality, vol. 71, no. 3, 2003, pp. 465–493., doi:10.1111/1467-6494.7103008. 
  8. Russell, Brenda, et al. “Interviewees’ Overuse of the Word ‘Like’ and Hesitations: Effects in Simulated Hiring Decisions.” Psychological Reports, vol. 102, no. 1, 2008, pp. 111–118., doi:10.2466/pr0.102.1.111-118. 
  9. Stevens-Huffman, Leslie. “Mastering the Psychology of Job Interviews.” Dice Insights, 11 Oct. 2017, insights.dice.com/2017/08/17/mastering-psychology-job-interviews/. 
  10. Swider, Brian W., et al. “Initial Impressions: What They Are, What They Are Not, and How They Influence Structured Interview Outcomes.” Journal of Applied Psychology, vol. 101, no. 5, 2016, pp. 625–638., doi:10.1037/apl0000077. 
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