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February 27, 2005

Blink and Interviewing

On vacation I read Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. He visited Microsoft and discussed the book; that link will give you the basics.

It's an interesting book but I think more about "cool stories" than the more profound, applicable insights from The Tipping Point. I think it has a structural flaw: he explains that people can't explain their snap judgements and when asked to do so spout nonsense, but then relays a bunch of people's explanations of how their snap judgements work. Isn't that inconsistent? Even if we allow that certain experts can understand how their snap judgements are made, there is no easy way to take advantage of this; to be able to make snap judgements about something you need to become an expert at it, at which point better snap judgements will become a by-product of your expertise.

He does have some great stories and some of these are about unconscious bias and how even if people know that an experiment is designed to reveal unconscious bias, and which bias it is, they cannot prevent the bias merely by thinking ahead of time "I will not be biased by factor X or Y".

So let's think about interviewing. Microsoft used to hire a lot of the same kind of person -- I don't mean the obvious racial or gender sameness, but just a certain type of geek with a certain type of personality. So the company worked hard to educate interviewers about avoiding these more subtle biases -- about how loud someone spoke, how they held their hands, where their gaze landed, etc.

Now I completely believe what Gladwell has written and reported on in various place: interviews are decided in the first fifteen seconds and the interviewer makes a "blink" judgement which he or she then spends the rest of the time justifying in his/her mind. The brainteaser questions and all that are just hooha. William Poundstone, in his book How Would You Move Mount Fuji? also claims that the brainteaser questions are hooha, but for a different reason, which is that they are too random and "spoilable" if a candidate knows what is going on.

Anyway, I think they are (almost entirely) hooha, but I keep doing interviews, and my rationalization to myself is that I may be incredibly affected by subtle behaviors in candidates, but that may be a good thing; someone who has the proper geek mindset to work at Microsoft is probably throwing off a lot of unconscious signals about their geekiness, which I am picking up unconsciously (I should emphasize I am not talking about obvious traits such as race and gender -- I sincerely hope I am not being affected by those, but if I am, I realize that it is wrong wrong wrong).

One thing I do during interviews is to note to myself what my initial fifteen-second impression of a candidate is. I figure if I am going to be so affected by something, I might as well note it explicitly to myself. Sometimes, by the end of the interview, I find that my initial impression has been contradicted by how the candidate responded in the interview. This can go either way (a candidate I initially liked doing badly, or someone I had doubts about doing well), but in either case I feel like I have done something heroic -- I have overcome my initial impression and undoubtedly gotten the "correct" assessment in the end.

Now this is where Blink made me think. Gladwell says that these initial impressions can actually be more accurate than more detailed analysis, and that having more information about something makes our judgement worse -- while simultaneously increasing our confidence in the validity of our judgement. This would imply that every time (or most times) that an interviewer changes their initial impression of a candidate, they are actually changing it to the wrong impression, while simultaneously increasing their confidence in that impression -- thus making it more likely that this kind of "error" will happen again.

Poundstone's final assessment is that Microsoft-style interviews are not any better than other methods, but they aren't any worse either. But is it possible that all the training Microsoft has done to prevent interviewers from being affected by subtle biases, which encourages interviewers to go against their initial impressions, has actually made the interviewers worse?

Posted by AdamBa at February 27, 2005 11:29 PM

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I recently interviewed at microsoft, and there were 0 brainteaser questions, I read somewhere that they had stopped that practice, as it does not necessarily find good employees, simply ones that can answer brainteasers well.

Posted by: ben at February 28, 2005 07:57 AM

It is true they have officially de-emphasized the brainteasers, although it will take a while for that information to filter out to all employees.

But really the use of brainteasers is separate from the point I was suggesting. You can do a "proper" interview with coding questions, situational role-playing, etc. and still, if you find yourself changing from your initial impression, you are likely wrong -- that is what I am saying MIGHT be true.

- adam

Posted by: Adam Barr at February 28, 2005 11:43 PM

While I debated buying the book, and ended up deciding against it, I've heard several negative reviews of it.

From my point of view, I don't think that anything that encourages people to listen to their snap judgements is a good thing. I think that when it comes to assessing real "information" accurately, that gut reaction is often right. I think when it comes to judging things based on incomplete data, or anything that requires interpretation or explanation, visceral responses are almost always a bad thing.

I was always told by teachers that when taking a test, your first response to an answer is usually the right one, in other words, don't second guess yourself. But in this case, you theoretically "know" the information already, and it's simply a matter of bringing it to the surface. Again, this is an example of a situation where you have all the information already, and simply need to rely on your ability to react to it on a subconscious level.

People send out a lot of signals, sometimes intentionally, most times unintentionally, and to judge someone by their cover is something we were long advised against. Suppose a candidate shows up to an interview in a wrinkled shirt and jeans ... your gut response might not tell you that the candidate's infant child threw up on them that morning, and they had to change hastily. Would that affect their ability to do the job? Highly unlikely, unless image is a major component.

I think that Adam's practice of noting the initial impression, and using that as a barometer is a very elegant way to approach the situation. Acknowledge any intial bias, and then reassess. Advice many people could use in daily life. :)

Posted by: Rob Stevens at March 1, 2005 02:39 PM

I just had two days with only one brainteaser at the end, and it was a softball. Eight interviews over two days - whee!

Posted by: Ry Jones at March 1, 2005 11:47 PM