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December 11, 2012 / alipeles

5. Proactively fight your own prejudices

  • We’re not always as methodical and rational as we’d like to believe
  • Bias can be subtle in both content and effect
  • Subconscious judgments can be counter-productive and unfair

Have you ever heard that old saying about job interviews that, the handshake is everything? Well, experimental psychologists have demonstrated that it’s even truer than you might have believed. They asked a group of untrained strangers to rate 98 candidates based on videotaped interviews and those untrained reviewers came to substantially the same conclusions as experts trained to conduct thorough interviews and come to bias-free decisions.

Not that surprising? What if I tell you that the untrained strangers were shown only the first 15 seconds of each interview without sound? That’s right. People who take the time to ask thoughtful questions and carefully weigh evidence do about as well as people who watch silent handshakes.

As a candidate, this is pretty troubling. I want interviewers to judge me based on my skills and experience, not my handshake. As an interviewer, it’s perhaps even scarier. I might be letting great candidates get away, or hiring bozos upon whose work I might depend for years, because of arbitrary intuitions generated by first impressions. While intuition is great when it works, it has absolutely no defense against the entry of bias. That’s why we introduce formal rational checks to important decisions in the first place.

But, be concerned even if you don’t regularly conduct job interviews. You probably make decisions all the time based on your perceptions of the competence and reliability of partners and colleagues. Here is solid evidence that at least sometimes what we believe to be reasoned judgments actually reflect intuition and are susceptible to bias. Those trained interviewers in the experiment believed that they were following an objective rational process. But, in all likelihood, opinions formed in the first 15 seconds influenced everything that followed.

The only way you can reduce hidden prejudice is to recognize that it’s probably present, rout it out, and quash it. Assume that some of the “rational” decisions you make have been colored by subconscious intuitions and invalidating biases. Double check. Bounce things off trusted colleagues. Listen even to silly feedback. And, analyze again.

Bias, by the way, can be the traditionally insidious isms (racism, sexism, etc.), but it can also be plain old judgment clouding nonsense of no particular moral vice: a bad experience with a particular vendor, something in the tone of someone’s voice that reminds you of a sleazy ex, who knows? Whatever it is, don’t let it mislead you.

P.S. You can read more about the study here. Or, check out this more accessible summary.


Leave a Comment
  1. Jim F / Dec 11 2012 10:41 am

    But what if the handshake is an effective heuristic? Consider your bias towards overthinking vs. snap decisions…

  2. alipeles / Dec 11 2012 10:56 am

    A very fair point. A related study ( found that impressions based on “thin slices” of evidence were sometimes strongly correlated with presumably more objective measures. In that study, students predicted end of semester professor evaluation scores with remarkable accuracy. And the results correlated well with faculty evaluations, too.

    “Trust your instincts” is probably a topic for another post. But, the case I want to make here is pretty limited:
    1. Sometimes we’re using intuition when we think we’re being methodical.
    2. When we use intuition, bias CAN enter without our realizing it.
    3. Being consciously aware of this phenomenon is the only way to protect yourself.

    There is also some evidence out there that, when our intuitions and objective evidence clash, we have a tendency to give more weight to intuitions.

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