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How your brain can stop you choosing the right candidate

Posted on 15/09/2016 by Rob Hayter


People are naturally biased, which means even when you intend to be completely fair, your brain has a hard time remaining impartial. Cognitive biases are the inherent thinking assumptions and short cuts that humans make in processing information; the mental stumbling blocks that can affect our behaviour and can prevent us acting in our own best interests.

Typical effects of cognitive bias include being too quick to jump to a decision and ignoring contradictory evidence, being overly zealous in defending your decision and selectively looking for evidence to back up your decision rather than objectively weighing up all available information. Cognitive biases may result in poor decisions which are ultimately costly, particularly for individuals and organisations involved in the interview process.

So what are some of the most common cognitive biases that affect the recruitment process, and how can you overcome them to determine who is really the best candidate for your role?

Primacy / Recency Bias

Primacy bias refers to the natural tendency to remember more about and therefore over-prioritise the first thing or event in a sequence; in this case the first candidate to be interviewed. Recency bias is similar, but describes preference given to the most recent in the sequence. When asked to recall lots of items on a list, the ones we remember best are those at the beginning and end of the list.

When we are presented with a large amount of information that requires constant evaluation, as when we interview a series of candidates, we become mentally tired and our brains tend to take shortcuts. If the interview process is simple and quick, we tend to remember the first interviewee best. If the process is more drawn-out, we usually remember the most recent candidate more.

These effects can also occur during individual interviews, causing you to rely on your first impression of a candidate, rather than concentrate on what they say throughout. Similarly, if a candidate does well in the interview overall, but you get a negative impression from an answer towards the end of the interview, that is likely to stick in your mind more than the rest.

Contrast bias

Contrast bias occurs when you see a particularly good or bad interviewee, who then becomes a benchmark against which other applicants are evaluated. If you see a star candidate, but are unable to secure them for the role, you may reject others who could prove more than capable. Or after interviewing a particularly low calibre candidate, you may give the next interviewee a high score simply because they perform less badly than the previous applicant.

Availability bias

Availability bias describes the idea that if you can remember something, it must be more important than characteristics that cannot be recalled. During the interview process, any aspects that are more unusual and therefore more memorable, are therefore more likely to be remembered and influence the decision-making process.

This is a particular issue during recruitment as studies have found that interviewers are more influenced by negative information than positive. For example, if a candidate had an unusual weakness in their application, that would be more likely to be remembered than any standard positive responses they gave, which could negatively bias the final decision in an unjustified way.

Confirmation bias

Confirmation bias refers to our tendency to make an initial preconception and then seek out information to confirm this, ignoring any contradictory evidence. Most people unconsciously prefer information that confirms what they already believe.

This often results from interviewers being overly confident about their initial evaluations and reluctant to accept that they may not be accurate. For example, a recruiter may make a judgement about a candidate based on their CV or on their first impression. And additional information gathered during the interview process is likely to hold more weight if it supports that initial bias.

Representativeness bias

Representativeness bias is the tendency of people to ‘judge a book by its cover’ or to assume that because two people are similar, they share all the same characteristics. For example, if an employer hires a particularly successful individual who went to a prestigious university, they are more likely to subconsciously believe that all interviewees who attended the same university will also be successful new hires.

This bias can inadvertently result in stereotyping, which is problematic if it applies to factors like a candidate’s physical attractiveness, political persuasion or economic background, but is illegal discrimination if it involves ‘protected characteristics’ such as gender, race or disability.

So how do you combat unconscious bias?

Cognitive biases have evolved in order to help us filter information and make decisions, but they can lead us to make the wrong call. Just being aware that they exist is not enough; to make decisions as free from bias as possible it is necessary to introduce procedures to help combat these mental shortcuts.

Some basic methods of making more informed decisions include:

  • Don’t rely on your instinct or ‘gut feeling’
  • Keep the interview process as similar as possible each and every time, eg don’t hold some interviews in person and some via Skype
  • Create a standard list of questions and make sure you ask them in the same order to every candidate
  • Create a scoring procedure and give all interviewees scores against specific questions or traits from the person specification
  • Take good notes during the interview and take some time to flesh them out after the interview
  • Involve others in the process; get their input and justify your decisions to them

If you’d like to conduct interviews in a neutral but professional environment, TPP lets organisations use our interview space for free.  And if you need any further help or advice during the interview process, our consultants are happy to help.

Contact me at and 020 7198 6060.