The opening scene of the play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by the great English playwright Tom Stoppard (who also won an Oscar for writing Shakespeare in Love) shows Rosencrantz flipping a coin in the air 104 times—the first 103 come up heads. I hadn’t thought of this scene in a while until a report on NPR this morning by Shankar Vedantam about new research connecting the idea of the gambler’s fallacy—that after, say, a streak of five heads we expect the sixth to be tails—with interviewing job candidates.
“People are averse to judging too many applicants high or low on a single day, which creates a bias against people who happen to show up on days with especially strong applicants,” Uri Simonsohn, of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and Francesca Gino, of Harvard Business School, said. “We were able to document this error with experts who have been doing the job for years, day in and day out.”
The research—which you can get to through an HBR blog post—came from analyzing 9,000 interviews involving MBA candidates over the course of a decade. What’s interesting is that it can be helpful to both those hiring and those interviewing—and even applied to other areas like choosing email copy, speakers and freelance employees. The basic idea involves not getting fooled by small patterns.
The researchers discovered that employers who have just interviewed several strong candidates are more likely to view the next applicant negatively—they call this “narrow bracketing.” Having too many poor candidates on the same day can also skew the results. Simonsohn and Gino estimate that interviewers add the equivalent of two years of job experience to the last candidates of a poor group, believing that—like the coin—the next one must be different.
Simonsohn and Gino give three possible reasons for this:
1. People’s belief in the law of the small numbers first put forth by Tversky & Kahneman in 1971; basically, they can’t all be heads.
2. Mental accounting. Simplifying the task of maintaining a given long-term target of positive evaluations by applying [targets] to each “daily account.”
3. We worry about those evaluating us. “How could Ronn not like all these candidates?”
The solution? They recommend having a spreadsheet where you can see all the candidates that you interviewed, giving clarity to your search over time. This would help good candidates who appear earlier and may be forgotten. People debate whether it’s good to interview first or last. (I would have said last.) But this study puts that question more on the quality of those interviewing around you.
I have always wondered about this with film critics, not understanding how they could like a particular film. This research would explain that; attend six or seven films like Identity Thief or 21 and Over, and the next couple you might like no matter what they are. It would seem that publishers would also have to be careful, perhaps in judging email copy or possible speakers. At least there’s testing to validate what you think.
Steve Inskeep, the NPR host, said that this ideology also has broader implications. “Don’t get too focused on the last few things that happened and assume or get caught up on small patterns.”
“And don’t assume that the smaller pattern has to necessarily affect the larger pattern,” Vedantam added. “So if you tossed the coin a million times in a row and it comes down a million times heads, something’s wrong. But if you tossed it and it comes down five times in a row heads, it’s actually not such a big deal.”
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Ronn Levine began his career as a reporter for The Washington Post and has won numerous writing and publications awards since. Most recently, he spent 12 years at the Newspaper Association of America covering a variety of topics before joining SIPA in 2009 as managing editor. Follow Ronn on Twitter at @RonnatSIPA