First Impressions and Talent Selection… How to Snap Out of Making Snap Decisions

October 30, 2017 | Ray Bixler | HCI
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There it is – the face of a potential job candidate. You can’t explain how you know this, but you feel it’s a trusting, dependable face. You instantly feel that he or she is more capable than others you viewed today.

Careful! You may not know it, but you’ve just engaged in the pseudoscience of physiognomy, reading (or more appropriately misreading) peoples’ temperament and characters in their faces. A rash, flawed judgment about a prospect’s appearance may unduly influence your hiring decisions.

In his new book, Face Value: The Irresistible Influence of First Impressions, author and Princeton University psychology professor Alexander Todorov explores how we’re genetically programmed to make snap character judgments about people based on whether we like or dislike their faces. He will be sharing this research in a webinar on November 8. Todorov is an expert in the science of first impressions. He conducted experiments in the U.S. in which participants were shown pictures of politicians and then, based on those first impressions, were asked to predict the winner. He found that the more capable-looking candidate (in participants’ eyes) is more likely to win an election.  All we need is to look at faces for one-tenth of a second to get the information we need to make our judgments, he notes.

What We ‘See’ in Faces

In his book, Todorov says we’ve all committed to memory what we consider typical and atypical faces, the characteristics of which vary by the world around us as we grow up. Several factors play into whether we judge them positively or negatively, including if we ourselves share those characteristics and what our friends and foes look like.  “We trust people who are similar to our tribe and distrust people who are dissimilar,” notes Todorov.

And we learn this behavior early: “By 7 months, infants can tell positive from negative expressions,” he adds.

Todorov notes that we evaluate faces on three “fundamental dimensions”: attractiveness, trustworthiness and dominance.  And no single facial feature cements our impressions of someone. For example, many people might interpret a smiling face as being trustworthy. Yet, our brains quickly assess a combination of features to make our judgments.

In his book, Todorov shows schematic faces depicting a person’s mouth and eyebrows, and shows that the combined effect complicates any assumptions people may hold about smiling faces. Interviewers speaking with a job candidate who is smiling but has sad tent-shaped eyebrows (/\) may nevertheless form a perception of them as trustworthy. Not so with the same smiling candidate sporting v-shaped eyebrows (\/).  Some interviewers may interpret that face as “scheming.” That’s hardly trustworthy.

We even associate good and bad behavior to strangers based on their resemblance to people we know. In one chapter of his book, Todorov describes an experiment in the “influence of face similarity,” in which participants judged job applicants with faces similar to former successful employees as more qualified than applicants who resembled former unsuccessful employees – this despite contrary information on all the applicants’ resumes.

Hasty Judgments Are Bad Business

Todorov’s book shows how recruiters, hiring managers and human resources professionals may make many snap assessments, often without even realizing it, of a person’s trustworthiness, honesty or other personality traits.

The consequences of this bias are enormous. A bad choice based on false impressions and bias mean your company may be ignoring more talented applicants who can help you grow and be more profitable.

Fighting Biases

One way to combat bias is to conduct training to help recruiters and hiring mangers become aware of hidden biases, as well as develop diversity skills and apply them to interviewing, selection, and recruiting methods.

On the technology front, some organizations are practicing blind hiring, initially keeping candidates’ faces, names and other biographical information hidden from employers Instead, hiring managers first see how applicants perform on tests that measure skills pertinent to the job.

An article last year in The Wall Street Journal highlighted how one U.S. tech firm found their hiring managers would often select job candidates with whom they made personal connections.  As a fix, the company started requesting that applicants complete an anonymous “sample project,” and that has helped the firm identify and hire true “top performers.”

Another way is to incorporate more data points into the decision-making process. Predictive analysis, based on reliable data points can help organizations asses which candidates will be their top performers, versus relying solely on human snap judgment. Many companies are also turning to technology to support talent decisions with reliable, detailed job-specific feedback on a candidates’ soft skills from references. Online reference checking can deliver data-driven feedback that helps you understand a candidate’s strengths and rich detail about a candidate’s past performance. That analysis helps hiring managers make more informed, less biased decisions.

Many organizations, however, still face a giant hurdle reaching references through traditional methods and adequately covering questions that will provide a true picture of a candidate. But the real value to reference feedback comes when they can assess a candidate’s “soft skills” – competencies such as “being a team player” or “adapting to change.” HR professionals can use this soft skills assessment to complement the pre-hire skills assessment of the applicant, rounding out the picture of a candidate’s capabilities.

Todorov’s Face Value shows us that we’re genetically wired to make flawed snap assessments of peoples’ characters based solely on their facial features. He also shows how erroneous those decisions are. While that’s discouraging, it’s helpful to know this about ourselves. Technology can help connect us to more sound, unbiased judgments when recruiting and hiring.

You can test how you may judge candidates based on their features in this upcoming webinar I’ll be hosting featuring Alexander Todorov: Face Value and Its Irresistible Impact on Hiring: Understanding The Influences that (Mis)Lead Hiring Decisions.