8 candidate cognitive biases you should know

There’s no getting around it: even as your judgment as a recruiter can be skewed by mental gymnastics that defy the facts, the same is true of candidates when they choose one company over another. Here are the main biases that they face, which you should anticipate as a recruiter.

#1. Mental anchoring bias

This is one you're familiar with because we went through it in our article about recruiting biases. This is the influence left by a first impression, which guides our judgment. Oh, those first impressions, how tantalizing they can be! It's not just recruiters who fall victim to them, but candidates as well – a smile or handshake, or even how the meeting starts (arriving on time, being comfortable, knowing your first name, etc.). The difference is that you can’t keep candidates from forming these impressions. Instead, you should ensure that the information they get is handled in the best possible way and that this bias, which is also called the primacy bias, becomes a positive one.

An illustrative GIF

How can you use this bias to your advantage? Be mindful of the actions or words you employ. Make each candidate feel welcome, whether they’re the first of the day or the last, and keep a smile on your face! Pay close attention to the words you use at the close of the interview, which could be misinterpreted by the candidate. For instance, some of them might construe “see you soon” as presaging a positive outcome to the hiring process. If your decision is not yet made, be careful not to raise false hopes among your candidates.

One solution to make a good impression on your careers page? Opting for a chatbot can help you turn an ordinary visit into a job application!

 #2. Association bias

The candidate will quickly label your company – friendly start-up, old-school or hidebound corporation, dynamic or innovative... Based on their frame of reference, their first looks will give them an idea of what the work environment is like, or how their interactions with coworkers might go. The workspace itself can also feed this bias. A ping-pong table can mean a relaxed atmosphere for some or a “cool start-up” cliché to others. Eye-catching offices might be a dream for some, but too pretentious for the rest. Closed rather than open-plan space might be perfect for some but less popular among others. It’s all about perception. You should therefore be mindful of your strengths and weaknesses to highlight the former while downplaying the latter.

How can you get this bias to work in your favor? If you have strengths, show them off! Choose a good-looking room for your interview rather than a shabby one; even if your office space overall is excellent, you run the risk that the candidate might only remember that one room. Of course, the idea is not to oversell your company, but to stick to reality and present a positive employer brand.

Don't be afraid to show off the digital technology you use to make people’s lives easier, especially in your hiring process, like video interviews.

#3. Social desirability bias

To a candidate, it would seem logical to want to appear in the best light. However, the risk with social desirability bias is that the candidate will tend to say things that they believe the recruiter expects to hear. Some will go so far as to twist reality or sugarcoat; they might even manipulate the interviewer into revealing only what they want to show, and tell the interviewer only what they want to hear. They probably saw in the job listing or careers page what topics to bring up and put them in their own words. This is understandable since the stakes are high for the candidate. But for the recruiter, it’s critical to protect against this to avoid feeding false expectations.

How can you avoid it? Have more interviews with different people conducting them, since each recruiter has different sensibilities. This is the best way to separate truth from falsehood. It's also important to conduct the interview in a structured way, with questions set in advance, so that all of the expected skills can be analyzed together.

#4. Self-serving bias

You’ve probably already noticed that all individuals, no matter who they are, tend to feel that they deserve their success, and blame failure on others. One example is how sports fans famously say “we won!” when their team wins, and “they lost” when that same team loses. In hiring, this bias is seen in the tendency of a candidate to tout their achievements but point to outside circumstances to explain why a project failed.


How can you detect and mitigate it? Go ahead and question the candidate on the involvement of other stakeholders in a successful project and other reasons why it succeeded; conversely, try to figure out the internal reasons for failure (what could have been done for the project to succeed?)

#5. Overconfidence bias 

Did you know that more than half of individuals asked about their capabilities in a given field believe that they're above-average? Intelligence, behavior, language fluency: the results are stunning. 90% believe that their skills are better than average.

How can you get around this? Facts, facts, and more facts! Don't just trust what the candidate says. Ask for examples, quiz the candidate about how they carried out a project, or put their skills to use in their previous job.

Want a solution? Get accurate evaluations with custom skills tests, like online tests that you can create on your own, such as with Test Builder

#6. Cultural bias 

The recruiter will tend to be more sympathetic to a candidate who looks like them (same background, whether geographical, social, educational, etc. or even the same hobby or passion). This is why asking questions about what the candidate does for fun is considered discriminatory. This bias works the same the other way around. Avoid going out of your way to touch on these issues during selection interviews, because they don’t tell you anything meaningful about the candidate’s skills. 

How do you avoid it? As you can imagine, this is a particularly tricky bias to get around, as all the information collected on a résumé encourages you as a recruiter to talk about your hobbies or where you grew up, whenever the candidate happens to do so! Put that conversation aside and focus only on analyzing skills. Once you’re certain that the candidate is the right one, you’ll be able to cover these subjects during the job offer. For all you know, cultural biases might be what tip the candidate in your favor if they're undecided.

#7. Confirmation bias

Just as you tend to form a clear picture of a candidate based on some amount of information, so too is the candidate’s judgment altered based on the information in the job listing, on your careers page, or received in a discussion with you. Before the interview, they’ll have come up with an idea of the job, its duties, and its scope, and they might not be correct.

How do you avoid this bias? It's critical to ensure that the candidate doesn't misconstrue the job and has gotten a full picture of what it’s about. Feel free to directly ask “What do you think this job entails?” 

The solution? Do a preselection video interview and incorporate this question into your questionnaire. You’ll save time on the selection phase for in-person interviews, weeding out unfit candidates. 

#8. Situation effect

This isn’t a cognitive bias per se, but rather a situation that will necessarily skew a candidate’s behavior during the hiring process. A candidate who already has a job will not bring the same expectations and behavior to an interview as an unemployed candidate seeking work. And if you press further, an unemployed candidate who’s not getting many interviews will act differently from one who is. 

How do you avoid this bias? Being informed is a good first step toward being more objective toward these candidates: one who’s stressed out because they only got a single interview might be more perfect than one currently in a job, who's more relaxed, confident, and pressure-free. Try to base your judgment on what each of the candidates is saying rather than their attitude. 

Note that digital solutions can aid in being objective because they rely on simple principles: automating tasks with limited added value while also warding off cognitive biases as much as possible. To learn more about what candidates think about tools like pre-recorded video interviews, see our easy-to-read annual satisfaction survey.

#Skills mapping #Skills Assessment

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