Thursday, 11 February 2016

Psychologists have looked into the importance of the pre-interview chitchat

Those first informal minutes really do matter
As a fan of fair job assessment, I’m bugged by the freeform chatter that kicks off most interviews – it allows influential first impressions to be formed in a yak about the traffic or some other trivial topic that has nothing to with the job. It’s true that interview structures have become more standardised over the years, but a new study in the Journal of Applied Psychology suggests these developments aren’t enough to counter the effect of early rapport. The research also addresses the heart of my concern: do first impressions actually provide important information, or simply introduce unfair bias?

Bryan Swider at Scheller College of Business at the Georgia Institute of Technology and his colleagues analysed the outcomes of mock interviews involving 163 accountancy students, who were rated by interviewers on their answers to 12 standardised questions. However, before the formal questioning period, the interviews began with a few minutes of rapport building, after which the interviewers noted down their first impressions. Did these preliminaries influence the overall interview scores?

They did. The overall scores given by the interviewers differed from those given by a separate set of expert reviewers, who were given video access only to the main Q&A phase, and whose ratings were therefore uncontaminated by informal first impressions. The discrepancy between this expert baseline and the interviewer scores was partly explained by taking interviewer first impression ratings into account – those students who made a good initial impression tended to receive more favourable scores from the interviewers for their answers to the formal questions, especially the first few, with the effect tailing off as the interview gathered pace.

What explains the influence of those first impressions? The expert raters also produced an "image score" for each interviewee based on their physical appearance, voice, and body language. Participants who scored higher for image were especially likely to receive inflated scores from the interviewers, suggesting that at least one of the influences of those first impressions was to do with good image management: suave candidates make better impressions.

But this wasn’t the whole story – something non-image related was also going on.
Past work by Swider and one of his co-authors, Murray Barrick, shows that positive first impressions are associated with candidate verbal skill and extraversion, two features that may be legitimately useful to the job. Consistent with this, in the current study the interviewers’ first impression scores correlated with the expert raters’ overall scores (which remember were based purely on the formal Q&A part of the interviews), suggesting that the early rapport gave a genuine preview into how the candidates would fare with the meat of the interview. All in all, the influence of interview first impressions may be partly unfair and superficial, but also communicate information that’s genuinely informative.

If we want to reduce the impact of first impressions, the authors suggest buffering the main part of the interview from the rapport phase with a few un-scored questions that soak up the effect. Explicitly rating the first impressions on criteria that can be tied back to the job (eloquence, flexibility) also makes things fairer. Beyond that, the researchers argue it is difficult to do away altogether with early chitchat – it’s expected by both parties and also a good way to ease candidates in to what is a stressful social situation. And looking at the mixed nature of first impressions – and recognising there is more to be understood – I wonder if it’s better after all to make peace with informal interview chat rather than trying to fight it.


Swider, B., Barrick, M., & Harris, T. (2016). Initial Impressions: What They Are, What They Are Not, and How They Influence Structured Interview Outcomes. Journal of Applied Psychology DOI: 10.1037/apl0000077

--further reading--
Do interviewers really make a hiring decision in the first four minutes?
The psychology of first impressions, digested.
Interview decisions are influenced by initial rapport

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.

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