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How the contrast principle is messing with your job interviews

BY Team PredictiveHire

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In his book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, author Bob Cialdini explains how the contrast principle can unfairly distort our perceptions of quality and value. By comparing a really good thing to something that is just okay, we tend to judge the latter as far worse than it is. It works the other way, too: when presented with a host of bad options, the best of the bunch – the lesser of all the evils – looks disproportionately attractive.

Cialdini gives us myriad examples: Realtors who show you a couple of dingy properties to make the target property look better, and retail salespeople who suggest a really expensive coat to get you to settle for the cheaper belt. The principle also turned a series of bad management decisions into the Watergate incident, if you can believe that.

It doesn’t stop there, however. The contrast principle is a natural and inextricable part of the traditional face-to-face interview.

Comparing the gregarious extravert with the soft-talking introvert

Janie is bright, exuberant, and chatty. The interview starts strongly. She strides proudly into your office, hand outstretched, smiling warmly. Her clothes are fashionable. Her resume is colourful and well-designed. You like her right away, as does everyone, because she’s a ray of sunshine. She probably plays the harp and makes her own muesli.

The interview goes well. Janie knows what to say, and because she is extraverted, she knows how to deftly circumvent tricky technical questions. There’s a slight concern in the back of your mind that she is not sufficiently experienced, but you figure that her outgoing, can-do attitude will more than make up for that (and you might be right).

Alice is your next appointment. She’s a lot quieter than Janie. She speaks a lot less, too. Her smile is genuine, and she is perfectly well spoken, but Alice is clearly nervous. Her manner is cautious, full of apprehension. 

You notice that her resume is excellent. Ticks all the right boxes. She’s a veteran in the field. But there’s something amiss: She’s just not like Janie. As a result, you’re probably not going to call her back for a second interview.

This is one of the most common ways the contrast principle plays out: If the second candidate does not match the energy of the first, if her presence does not illicit the same rise in dopamine, then we are likely to favour the first candidate. Objectivity quickly goes out the window.

Here are some other examples of how the contrast principle affects hiring

  • We are more likely to hire people who look, sound, or think like us. So, resultantly, we might rank a candidate higher than they deserve in comparison to others.
  • We spend so long looking for a candidate to fill a role that we lower our standards over time, and give later candidates more leeway than we do earlier ones.
  • Multiple candidate rejections may lead hiring managers to relent and accept a less-than-perfect candidate. This is an example of the contrast principle and  the reciprocity rule working together (that is, multiple rejections make the hiring manager more likely to concede and accept a lesser decision, in order to appear more cooperative to those doing the talent hunting).

How to remove the contrast principle from your hiring process

There are many suggestions out there for mitigating or removing the contrast principle, but the truth is this: If humans do your face-to-face interviews, you cannot prevent the potential for contrast bias. Even conducting what’s called a ‘blind resume review’ will not help. Yes, you can assess resumes stripped of identifying characteristics, like race or gender, but you cannot account for the fact that the details themselves are easily doctored and falsified. Don’t forget that 78% of people lie.

The bottom line is this: You need a blind, non-human smart interviewer to do your first-round interviewing for you. It’s the only way to be free of biases, compromise hires, and the intractable likeability factor. We can help with that.

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