“We can make a lot of mistakes”: The science of job interviews

Deep breaths.
Deep breaths.
Image: Reuters/Patrick T. Fallon
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After weeks of trolling the internet for job postings and dashing off cover letters, you’ve finally had a stroke of luck. There’s only one thing standing between you and your dream job: The interview.

This kind of high-stakes situation is guaranteed to get pulses racing. We all want to know what our interviewers are thinking, and how to make the best impression possible. While neuroscientists and psychologists have yet to peer into people’s brains during live interviews, recent studies can help us understand how to tip the odds in our favor.

The science of making a good impression

Humans are remarkably quick to form first impressions. Studies show that people tend to make split-second judgments about traits like trustworthiness and competence based on certain facial features. For example, people tend to see faces that appear happy and possess stereotypically feminine features—such as big eyes and round faces—as more trustworthy. Those with more masculine characteristics, such as squared faces and strong jawlines, are more likely to be perceived as dominant leader types. Although sometimes beyond our control, these impressions can influence important decisions like which politicians to elect, whether to convict a criminal, and, yes, whether to hire an employee.

Luckily, looks are not the only factors to consider. Psychologists have found that people tend to rely less on appearance when they have access to additional information about a person, such as past behavior.

This isn’t always a good thing. People tend to weigh negative behaviors more heavily than positive ones when ethics or morals are involved. For example, people are more likely to remember you for committing fraud than for donating money to charity. The implication here is that if you do something that makes you seem morally questionable during the interview—bad-mouthing your old company, say, or inadvertently an insensitive comment—it’s going to be tough to recover. 

The good news is that we have a bias toward positive information when we’re judging a person’s abilities. So the fact that you’ve built your own iOS app or received a prestigious grant to study oyster reefs is likely to make a much bigger impression than stumbling over a few words or misusing grammar. “I think [this] is somewhat encouraging,” says Peter Mende-Siedlecki, a neuroscience post-doctoral researcher at New York University who studies impression formation. “We can make a lot of mistakes, but if we have that one thing that no one else can do, that can open a lot of doors.”

Not everyone will have the same biases, says Mende-Siedlecki, since what individuals deem as rare will vary based on their experiences. For example, companies like Google or IBM see hundreds of applications from Ivy League grads with stellar GPAs. They probably won’t be that impressed by applicants with these basic qualifications. When applying to this type of company, make sure to do your homework. Figure out what your interviewer or workplace might find rare or unusual, and use that to help you stand out among the masses.

The stories that help us get in sync

Neuroscience can also shed light on how people form connections with each other. Uri Hasson, a neuroscientist at Princeton University, has been working to understand what happens in the brain when people interact with one another. In one 2010 study, Hasson’s group found that when people listen to a story, their brain activation patterns start to mirror the storyteller’s. The better the listener comprehends the story, the more similar their brain activity became. “[You] can use communication to spread ideas by making different brains become similar to yours, as if they [are] experiencing that thing that you experience,” Hasson says.

Neuroscientists have yet to identify what specific factors might help you sync up your interviewer’s brain with your own. But we do have evidence we can draw upon in the meantime.

For example, sharing a personal story might help. Unique, emotional narratives have been shown to stick with us. People are more likely to remember them, and these kinds of stories are also better at synchronizing activity in listeners’ brains. So rather than rattling off your strengths during your interview, share a story from a previous job or internship in which you displayed those qualities instead. By sharing something about yourself that’s also distinctive, you’ll have a better shot at making a lasting impression.