What a Nobel prize-winning economist discovers about interviewing

Recently I wrote a review of Daniel Kahneman's fantastic book on decision making; Thinking, Fast and Slow.

Kahneman won his Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for his seminal work in psychology that challenged the rational model of judgment and decision making.

In summary, Kahneman's book explains the two systems that drive the way we think. System 1 is fast, intuitive and emotional; System 2 is slower, more deliberative, and more logical. Kahneman exposes the extraordinary capabilities (and also faults and biases) of fast thinking and reveals the pervasive influence of intuitive impressions of our thoughts and behaviour.

Here's what Kahneman says (Thinking, Fast and Slow, Penguin 2011, pages 232 & 233) about the effectiveness of using System 2, in preference to System 1, in making hiring decisions:

If you are serious about hiring the best possible person for the job, this is what you should do. First select a few traits that are prerequisites for success in (the) position. Don't overdo it - six dimensions is a good number. The traits you choose should be as independent from each other as possible from each other, and you should feel that you can assess them reliably by asking a few factual questions.

Next make a list of those questions for each trait and think about how you will score it, say on a 1 to 5 scale. You should have an idea of what you will call ‘very weak' or ‘very strong'.

These preparations should take you half an hour or so - a small investment that can make a significant difference in the quality of the people you hire.

To avoid halo effects, you must collect the information on one trait at a time, scoring each before you move on to the next one. Do not skip around.

To evaluate each candidate, add up the six scores. Firmly resolve that you will hire the best candidate whose final score is the highest, even if there is another one whom you like better - try to resist the urge to change the rankings.

A vast amount of research offers a promise: you are much more likely to find the best candidate if you use this procedure than if you do what people normally do in such situations, which is to go into the interview unprepared and make choices by an overall intuitive judgment such as ‘I looked into his eyes and liked what I saw'.

There you have it; in 275 words you have the most succinct and valid way to undertake interviews. Let's recap this absolute gold for all interviewers: 

  1. Allocate half an hour for your interview preparation
  2. Identify the key success criteria (maximum 6) for the position, ensuring they are significantly different from each other
  3. Make a list of evidence-based questions that will enable you to accurately assess each of the criteria, with a clear understanding of what a high scoring answer (eg 5) would be, a moderate scoring answer (eg 3) and a low scoring answer (eg 1)
  4. In the interview, methodically ask questions about, and score, each criteria before moving onto the next one
  5. Add up the scores to determine the most highly rated candidate
  6. Avoid putting a candidate's likeability  ahead of the criteria you have decided is the most important criteria for success in the job

Instead, here's what most interviewers actually do: 

As can be seen from Kahneman's research (validated by the research of many others) effective interviewing is simple. But in my experience, very few people bother to learn effective interviewing techniques, or if they do learn them, fail to consistently implement what they have learned. As a result they continually make poor hiring choices.

Are you going to continue using your unstructured ‘gut instinct' interviewing technique or will you adopt the proven method of a Nobel-prize winning behavioural economist?


Views: 2580

Comment by Susan Rochester on September 13, 2013 at 13:02

Thanks for this article, Ross.  Wise words indeed!

Comment by Ben Glashoff on September 20, 2013 at 9:38

I agree with the approach. The one question I have is around maintianing focus on each particular trait, one at a time. In practice when you are asking the candidate to provide specific examples of things they have done in the past, they will by defulat, end up covering more then one trait that you that are looking for. What is the importance of one trait at a time? How does this impact the process? How do you do it in reallity? or am I just being to litteral in my interpritation of one trait at a time?

Comment by ross clennett on September 20, 2013 at 10:06

@ben - my interpretation of what Kahneman says is that you must satisfy yourself that you have collected enough evidence to enable your allocated score on a particular trait to be defensible. Naturally, as you are asking questions about one trait, you will hear evidence of others. You just take that evidence already gathered into account when it's the 'turn' of that trait to be assessed.

Comment by Susan Rochester on September 20, 2013 at 16:40

Good question, Ben, and as Ross says, it is about having the evidence you need to make an informed decision. Here's an example of a form that assists the interviewer to focus on one trait at a time, while giving them a way to record impressions of the other traits as the interview proceeds. See http://www.balanceatwork.com.au/blog/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/Int...  You could easily design your own version for traits of interest.

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