Confirmation bias in interviewing

Confirmation Bias in Interviewing

Confirmation bias is the practice of paying attention to data that supports your idea and ignoring data that conflicts.  People who write about statistics and gambling (pretty similar topics) almost always address confirmation bias sooner or later (see The Black Swan, Taleb, and The House Advantage, Ma, for examples).

When people tell you who they are, believe them.  Maya Angelou

One place that confirmation bias intersects with small business success is hiring.  When I found Eric Rudolph’s post about about interviewing for small business owners

first, ask good questions, and second, demand good answers,

I realized I needed to write more.

Eric’s article mostly focuses on asking good questions, and while that’s important, that’s not the point of this post.  Listening for and believing the answers you get is much more important than asking the perfect question.  OTOH, before you can believe an answer, you have to ask a question that has an answer that can be believed.

Consider this question:

Where do you want to be in five years?

What’s likely is that you’ll hear something the candidate made up, or prepared, that “sounds good”–marketing director.  Office manager.  An answer that shows ambition, perhaps a good work ethic, and sounds like something you imagine you might have said.  But “sounds good” is confirmation bias at work.  “Sounds good” means you have credited this candidate with interview points, simply because he said something that you think is a “right” answer.

How will ANY answer to “where do you want to be in five years?” provide useful information about how well a candidate will be able to answer the telephone in your office?

Now consider this question (I know, it’s a statement-not-a-question; hang with me here):

Tell me about a time when you had to take care of an angry customer.

No matter what a candidate says in reply, you have useful information.  Answers could indicate:

  • The candidate has NO experience with angry customers.
  • The candidate tosses gasoline on fires, figuratively.
  • The candidate understands customer service and how to create fans from fiascos.

If you’ve worked the Hiring is Hard system, you know I’m a big fan of behavioral interviewing.  It’s not the total solution for all business hiring problems, to be sure.  It can be important to ask about certain hypothetical situations you hope your employees will never encounter (hold ups or heart attacks at the restaurant; abused children at the day care center).  Targeted hypothetical questions are a completely different animal from wide open, dreams-and-plans type of questions.

What matters is that you think through the possible answers to the questions you are using when you interview.  What does a “good and useful” answer sound like?  (Try this at a sit-down networking meeting or mastermind group, if you have one.  See how other business people respond to your test questions.)  If you can’t identify a useful answer (that is, predictive of success on the job), it’s time to rethink the question and adjust your interview plan.

What’s your best predictive interview question?  Let me know in the comments.  Thx!


Eric Rudolf October 13, 2010 at 4:34 pm


First of all, thank you for referencing my interviewing article in your post. It’s hard to tell if you agree or disagree with my take . . . but thanks for the exposure just the same.

As a career small company guy who has hired (relatively speaking) a high number of people for a variety of positions, I (as my article states) am NOT a believer in anything resembling a ‘standard’ interview question. The free downloadable PDF I created, which can be linked to from my article, lists a number of predictive interview questions I regularly use. Here are some of my favorites:

1) Have you ever been given a project with very little direction on how to complete it? What did you do?

2) When you are given 10 things to do, and you only have time to do 3, how do you choose the 3?

3) If you were angry about something, how would I know?

4) Name one thing I could tell you about this job that would make you not want it anymore.

5) If you truly believed I was making a bad decision, and I refused to listen to you, what would you do?

6) Describe the most difficult person you ever worked with.

7) What do you do when you’re out-voted on an issue or idea?

A number of my friends, colleagues and co-workers have been using these questions for years, and believe their hires are much better as a result. And, as one person stated, “they make interviewing kind of fun.”

Enjoy your week.

– Eric –