Updated: Mar 1
“There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact.”
Sherlock Holmes, The Boscombe Valley Mystery, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
It’s nearly impossible to accurately predict a candidate’s future success on the job because of something called irreducible unpredictability. Any predictions would be based on incomplete historical/factual data supplied on the candidate résumé — some of which may not be totally reliable and honest — fail far short of providing reliable probabilities.
A 2008 study published in the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology Journal found that the variance in executive success accounted for by technical competence and psychological factors was 20% and 10%, respectively. However 70% of the variance was attributed irreducible unpredictability.
In a separate study, researchers found that managers placed more emphasis on competencies assessed by unstructured interviews (subjective, intuitive) than on competencies measured by different assessments (objective, defined).
The process of candidate assessment and selection involves considerable interplay of many psychological factors; yet many believe that as long as the candidate is the “right person for the job” and has been accurately assessed, success is certain. This belief fails to recognize that many elements of performance are unknown at the time of hire. The idea that it’s still possible to predict employee success ignores the fact that there is no such thing as perfect prediction in the hiring process.
A résumé with quantified accomplishments and achievements can lead one to believe that past history is an indicator of future performance. Such a candidate résumé will likely get on the short list for an interview—if there weren’t any social media red flags that would call into question that candidate’s viability as a quality hire.
When you’ve exhausted all legal/ethical avenues for evaluating a potential candidate, you’re still left with irreducible unpredictability. When you’ve gone as far as you can, you go with what you know and then intuition or “gut instinct” often takes you over that gap to help with making the hiring decision.
Experience Breeds Overconfidence with Prediction Accuracy
But there’s a problem there as well. The mistaken belief by many decision makers, hiring managers, and HR people is that the prediction accuracy of future performance improves through experience. This results in an overweighted trust in intuition and growing overconfidence. Overconfident people place too much trust in their own ability, easily dismiss factors or influences that may undermine their own perceived accuracy, and they underestimate others. As we gain experience, one would think that it would have a dampening effect on overconfidence, but quite the opposite happens: it increases.
Overconfidence can lead to complacency by not engaging the due diligence of critical thinking. Instead, we opt for a path of least logical resistance, bypassing other possibilities and rushing to judgment.
Neural Processing Shortcuts Can Introduce Noise and Bias
Our brains rely on mental shortcuts (called “System 1 processing”) to simplify making critical and non-critical decisions from all the sensory input we encounter every day. There are many neural processing short cuts, called “heuristics,” and each occurs in different contexts. The caution here is that because they are detours to longer duration neural processing (called “System 2 processing”), they can introduce errors and bias.
Unconscious bias refers to a prejudice of which we are unaware and which happens outside of our conscious control. (So-called “Overcoming Unconscious Bias” programs are really more about ensuring you can call up System 2 as a check on the effects of bias associated with System 1, though the efficacy of such programs remains questionable, according to many studies.) Unconscious bias occurs automatically and is triggered by our brain’s preference for neural processing shortcuts, resulting in quick judgments and assessments of people and situations (referred to as “thin slicing”). All of this is influenced by our background, cultural environment, and personal experiences.
But because System 2 takes more neural effort, it is easily distracted by competing demands. Stress, anxiety, fatigue, burnout all make it more difficult to access System 2.
Not all bias is unconscious. Not all bias is bias; it could be noise. As psychologist and Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman writes in Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment:
Noise causes error, as does bias, but the two kinds of error are separate and independent. A company’s hiring decisions could be unbiased overall if some of its recruiters favor men and others favor women. However, its hiring decisions would be noisy, and the company would make many bad choices.