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What is the real first impression in a job interview?

11 October 2013

What is a “first impression” in a job interview?

We don’t know for sure but as early as 1950 Harold Kelley, a professor of psychology at UCLA, proved that some first impressions can be based on things that are operating outside our conscious awareness – otherwise know as bias.

He described a real person to one group as "warm" and to another group as "cold" and then exposed both groups to the person acting identically to each. He found that subjects tended to have more positive impressions when the person was to be described as "warm." Conversely, the subjects tended to have more negative impressions when the person was described as "cold”.  (You can see more details on this study at ).   This research was validated as it replicated other findings but for us begged three questions:

What is the “first impression”?

How big is the first impression?   

Where is the first impression really made?

The answer to the first question starts with the work of a former CIA analyst Richards Heuer and ends with that of Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman.   Their work showed that our mind likes to make itself up quickly and with only minimal information.  They also showed that once our mind is made up there are only a very few conditions under which we will change it. This is known as bias and there are three kinds:

Expressed – we know about it and are happy to let you know about it

Suppressed – we know about it but we know better than to let you know about it

Repressed – we don’t know about it or its effects.

Conventional “Interview Tips” tell us to make our first impression count with our dress, our smile, our handshake and a myriad of “first impression” tools.  Kelley’s research, and the other work around bias and decision making, tends to challenge this idea. The interesting thing about Kelley’s research was that the primary delineating characteristic that seemed to influence the students was a perceived personality attribute – cold versus warm.  This is a term we normally associate with “feeling” rather than logic.  It ignores aspects such as marriage status and age.  A single word had skewed their impression in a particular direction and the implication was that they didn’t know this had happened.  We believe this is an example of a repressed bias.

It’s not that a good suit and an open smile won’t help your chances.   They probably will.  But it is bias that you will be struggling with when you sit down at the table.

When it comes to job interviews is bias “the hidden panel member?”



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