Judging character and assessing ability is an important skill in everyday life, but it is especially important when interviewing an applicant for a position in your company.

Do you think you are a good interviewer?
Do you think you are a good judge of character, of talent and of ability?

I think I am.

Apparently, most of us aren’t. In fact, psychology confirms this; there are a whole host of studies pointing out just how bad we are at judging people. Not to mention the impressive number of cognitive biases that have been documented, which I wouldn’t be surprised to see grow bigger in the future.

What’s frightening about cognitive biases is that in most cases, we aren’t even aware of them and in what ways they are clouding our judgment; they’re unconscious.

You may be thinking: “Sam, how am I supposed to avoid these biases when they’re unconscious? I have no control over them.”

One way is to become conscious of them, in which case reading a post like this one is a great first step in doing that [Good job!]. This way, we can slowly become aware of how our mind works, and understand some of the subtle ways we are led into error.

Here are some sources of bias that may be affecting the way you interview:

  1. Cognitive anchoring

I’m sure you’ve heard it said that ‘the first impression is always the most important’. Have you ever wondered why?

It’s because we are known to overestimate their value; for some reason, we place higher importance on the first pieces of information we learn about a person and lower importance on the following ones, even though there is no reason to believe that the first segment of information is more representative of the person than the others (Friedman, chap. 10).

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  1. The Halo Effect

The Halo Effect occurs when “a single positive characteristic (like a winning smile) [colors] our impressions of unrelated qualities (like an applicant’s abilities) […] We like looking at attractive people and often confuse the positive feelings we experience when we’re around them for a judgment of their actual skills” (Friedman, chap. 10). Physical appearance plays a big role in our evaluation of people.

Height is included in that too; studies show that we associate greater leadership qualities to taller people, and that there is a clear relationship between height and salary (Friedman, chap. 10).

We also make judgments of character based on the sound of a person’s voice; lower-pitched speakers are thought to possess greater strength, integrity, and leadership.


  1. Principle of similarity

We favor those who remind us of ourselves: people who look like us, speak like us, share similar hobbies and interests, etc.

  1. The order in which we meet candidates affects our evaluation of them

Have you ever been faced with the choice of either presenting early or later for a class project? In my experience, I always liked to go last (most of the time because I was underprepared).

Friedman explains that in a period of evaluation, “interviewers […] take into account the scores they’ve awarded previous candidates that day. If an interviewer has already awarded several positive assessments, they are less likely to recommend a candidate who appears later on. It’s because, as interviewers, we like to have balance in our evaluations” (chap. 10).

Maybe I should’ve gone earlier?


  1. “When we meet someone new, we instinctively evaluate them along two dimensions: first warmth, and then competence” (chap. 10)

Studies suggest that when we meet someone who is high in one respect (for example, someone who is very friendly), we mistakenly assume that they are low on the other (“They must be incompetent!”). In other words, we tend to assume that warmth and competence are inversely related; the ‘warmer’ someone appears to be, the lower we judge their competence and vice versa.


  1. We’re notoriously bad at spotting liars

According to Friedman, the most common forms of lying in interviews are embellishment (in which we take credit for things we haven’t done), tailoring (in which we adapt our answers to fit the job requirements), and constructing (in which we piece together elements from different experiences to provide better answers) (chap.10).

According to a University of Massachusetts study, job applicants lie a whopping 81% of the time (Friedman, chap. 10).

81%??? That’s ridiculous.


  1. The interviews themselves are bad

Friedman claims: “In many cases, job interviews are entirely disconnected from the reality of people’s day-to-day work” (chap. 10). I completely agree with this. Ask yourself, ‘How effective is a traditional sit-down interview in revealing a candidate’s ability to perform the required tasks and how well they fit with the company?’. I think in many cases it isn’t very effective.


Next time you interview someone, try to be aware of at least 1 or 2 of these biases (with the exception of #6-7) and report back to me (in the comments!).

Don’t worry; we’ll be exploring some ways to better your interview process in future posts. Stay tuned!


Friedman, Ron. The Best Place to Work: The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace. Perigee, 2015.

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