Who Needs a Job Interview? Just Shake Hands and Make Your Decision


I've been reading How Would You Move Mount Fuji and I came across a fascinating study in one of the early chapters about how quickly we evaluate people. This link describes it well.

In a 1993 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Vol. 64, No. 3), Ambady and a colleague videotaped 13 graduate teaching fellows as they taught their classes. She then took three random 10-second clips from each tape, combined them into one 30-second clip for each teacher and showed the silent clips to students who did not know the teachers. The student judges rated the teachers on 13 variables, such as "accepting," "active," "competent" and "confident." Ambady combined these individual scores into one global rating for each teacher and then correlated that rating with the teachers' end-of-semester evaluations from actual students.

"We were shocked at how high the correlation was," she says. It was 0.76. In social psychology anything above 0.6 is considered very strong.

Curious to see how thin she could make her slices before affecting the student judges' accuracy, Ambady cut the length of the silent clips to 15 seconds, and then to six. Each time, the students accurately predicted the most successful teachers.

"There was no significant difference between the results with 30-second clips and six-second clips," Ambady says.

In a later experiment in the same study, she cut out the middleman–the global variable–and simply asked students to rate, based on thin-slice video clips, the quality and performance of the teachers. Again, the ratings correlated highly with the teachers' end-of-semester evaluations. Ambady also replicated her results with high school teachers.

To sum up the research the way the book does: Complete strangers' opinions of a teacher, based on a silent two-second video, were nearly the same as those of students who had sat through a semester of classes. To make it even worse, a similar study was done with people trained in interviewing techniques, and the results were the same.

The book is setting up the traditional interviewing model for a big downfall. I've always been a critic of playing the stupid game that goes along with most hiring processes, but I'm surprised that it is really as ineffective as this book is showing it to be.

  • You can interpret that study in different ways depending on how you frame it. Sure you can say the students were stupid and performed no better than complete strangers at evaluating teachers. Another interpretation though is that the strangers are really good and could determine what they needed to know in just 2 seconds.

    Also, keep in mind that a teacher who is good for 15 seconds is more likely to be good over the course of the semester. Sure, maybe it’s that the students make up their minds quickly and refuse to change them. It is also possible that the students make up their minds accurately, and subsequent evidence supports that initial judgment.

  • anonymous coward

    is it not one of the points made by Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink? Where he also described how sometimes, snap judgement fail?

    In addition, what does this experiment measure exactly? We already know that the hiring interview is not designed to properly assess the actual work skills of the interviewee.

    I give some value to the evolutionary argument that we developed snap judgement to assess whether a newly met person means harm or not. This might be correlated to whether I can actually work with this person, hence the value of first impression, but it tells us nothing about the work skills.

  • Rob

    I totally agree. I think the point of the study is not that snap judgements are a good way to hire (that’s just my attempt to grab attention with an inaccurate headline). The point is that snap judgements are just as good as the standard methods most companies use, which is to say that neither is a highly accurate predictor of on-the-job performance.

  • J

    Great post, and timely for me. I had an interview yesterday for a position I’d like (but don’t need), and the main thing running through my mind during the personnel interview – one of those “tell me about a time when…” things – was “I hope my contempt for this method isn’t too obvious”.

  • Getting the first impression (from someone who has great gut instincts or intuition) should be part of every hiring decision. (So should interview methods that cause a candidate to reveal their “contempt” – and other attitudes.)

  • J

    “So should interview methods that cause a candidate to reveal their “contempt” – and other attitudes”

    Is contempt for irrelevant, paper shuffling busywork (I mean the self imposed kind)a negative or positive attribute in business?

  • Mike Haberman

    The “gut” has long been used in the interview process and will long be used. The problem is while some people are astute at “reading” someone, others are not and substitute their biases for their gut feeling. And since in the interview process there is a legal requirement of being unbiased, one that you must be able to substaniate when asked, using your gut solely to make the decision does not “cut the mustard.” Thus, the behavioral interviewing method, for which contempt was shown, was developed to help the interviewer produce a documentable method based on work related requirements. If properly used it does not ignore your gut, but it helps you possibly get over your biases and your gut is used to guide the questioning. It also provides you a legal defense in case the person being evaluated does not agree with your gut assessment.

  • Michael Haberman

    Another point I wanted to make about the gut feeling. There is a group of people who take great advantage of the fact that most of us make gut level decisions all the time. They are called “con artists.” And they appear all the time in the job place. A good example was Frank Abagnale, Jr., as portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio in Catch Me if You Can. Someone using behavioral interviewing at that time may have been able to determine he did not have the experience he said he did. But he was able to convince people he was a doctor, a lawyer, co-pilot etc. because he was so likeable and people had a good “gut” feeling about him.

  • Rob

    That must be why my gut impression of nearly everyone is negative. It’s my psychological defense mechanism against getting conned ;-)

  • Contempt is a complex reaction. Underneath contempt could be attitudes of self-satisfaction and smugness. Or it could be part of a strong, creative, intense contributor who lacks a little perspective.

    So it depends on two things, how many things about the job are likely to cause this person to show “contempt” and the manager’s abiltiy to work with the kind of person who shows contempt.

    But either way it’s great to get someone to reveal so much about themselves before you hire them.

  • I think you have to split gut (or intuition) from heuristic decision making.

    There are shortcuts in reasoning that are traps. These heuristics cause people to fall for con jobs. They are well documented. (Several good books- not by Gladwell)

    But real intuition is something else, where the person allows the other side of the brain to be heard above the bias and traps of the calculating side. Women seem to often have good intuitions. I suggest managers hear first impressions from a woman in the hiring process. There are steps to this to get the best input but in general an intuitive woman is a big help in avoiding bad hires.

  • I have no problem in using gut decisions to make friends, though I bet all of us can think of people who we may have intially decided they were a “geek” yet we found out later they were someone we wanted to be associated with. In the workplace, however, gut decisions can cost you thousands or millions of dollars, so I would like my managers to be making reasoned decisions backed up by documentation so my backside does not get reemed.

  • There are also many examples of “reasoned decisions backed up by documentation” that cost companies thousands or millions. (Snapple decisions) Heuristics are the real culprit.
    Intuiton (gut) can add a “reasoned and documented” value if you only figure out how to avoid the pitfalls. (One pitfall is allowing intuition to be the only factor you consider.)