Studies have shown that interviewers often make up their minds about candidates within the first few minutes of meeting them – sometimes regardless of how well they perform later on in the interview. It seems that first impressions are indeed powerful – but they don’t tell the whole story. Here’s how to assess whether inaccurate first impressions are hampering your ability to find the right candidates.
There is a long standing belief amongst both researchers and practitioners that initial impressions in the interview matter. Studies dating back to the 1950s have demonstrated how quickly interviewers make up their minds about candidates’ suitability for the job.
Perhaps consequently, it is hard to find a ‘how to’ guide for interview success that does not mention first impressions, but many of these claims are based on either anecdotal evidence or studies that used now-outdated interview methods.
With co-authors, I conducted research that confirms these initial impression effects still hold in today’s sophisticated, highly structured, and standardised interviews.
These results were somewhat troubling given that the updates to interviewing protocols over the last 50-plus years, such as asking validated questions in the same order and rating each response to each question independently, were made to help eliminate unwanted influences in the interview (e.g., including those stemming from the initial impression).
The effects from early impressions are not inconsequential, either.
In fact, our research showed that interviewers’ ratings of candidates’ initial impressions not only predicted future ratings provided by that interviewer, but also initial impressions ratings by others interviewers, number of invitations for follow-up interviews, and even number of job offers.
What is thin slicing?
In an effort to better understand how the influence of initial impressions continues to persist in high structured interviews as well as predict seemingly unrelated interview outcomes, our research team drew on findings from social psychology research on ‘thin slicing’.
The general tenet of this literature stream is that even when humans are presented with only thin slices of another individual’s behavior (e.g., a brief video of that person), they are able to infer somewhat accurate information about various characteristics of that person.
The problem with ‘small talk’
In the interview context, this would mean that during the small talk conversation that precedes the start of the interview, usually consisting of chit chat about innocuous topics such as the weather or local happenings, interviewers are actually able to gather information about candidates’ suitability for the positon.
To test this idea, we conducted over 160 interviews, which were video recorded, and had interviewers report their initial impressions of candidates following the meet-and-greet conversation.
After the small talk conversation and rating, interviewers asked and rated a series of standardised job-related questions to candidates. Using the videos from these interviews, we had objective experts rate the candidates’ videotaped reposes to the interview questions without seeing (and being influenced by) the meet-and-greet interaction.
Interestingly, our results indicated that that interviewers’ initial impressions based on just small talk were significantly positively related to what our expert thought about the candidates’ suitability based just on responses to interview questions.
This was compelling evidence that there is some information that is being picked up in the initial impression that is also being transmitted during the much longer, and more job-focused portion of the interview.
However, certainly not all the information interviewers were picking up early in the interview overlapped with objective ratings of interview performance. So we looked to untangle this remaining ‘bias’ portion of initial impressions from other established biases in the interview.
We elected to look at three prominent non-job-related factors, physical appearance, impression management usage, and verbal/non-verbal behaviors, which have been shown to influence interview outcomes as well as are often anecdotally suggested to contribute to initial impressions.
Yet, while interviewer ratings were correlated with objective ratings of all three of these different ‘image-related’ factors, initial impressions predicted interview scores above and beyond these factors.
How did initial impresisons influence how interviewers rated applicants?
So, if initial impressions were partially picking up useful information about the applicant, and the remaining portion was still influencing interview outcomes beyond more commonly studied biasing factors, then we were left to question how initial impression influence interviewer ratings of applicants.
To do this, we broke down the interview down from one overall score comprised of all the interview question ratings to instead look at each question independently and sequentially.
By dissolving the interview down into individual questions, we were able to test for patterns of relationships between interviewer initial impressions and specific interview questions.
We suspected that initial impressions would be significantly related to the scores interviewers give candidates on the initial interview question; the question that immediately follows the meet-and-greet portion of the interview. These analyses supported our hypotheses.
Furthermore, we found that this influence decreased over time, such that on average, ratings on successive questions were less and less influenced by initial impressions. That is, it appears the initial impression effect wears off over the course of the interview.
What are the implications of this study?
We believe this study has implications for organisations conducting interviews as well as candidates looking to land a job offer.
For organisations, while informal small talk conversations are picking up some meaningful information, perhaps having interviewers objectively score initial impressions would provide even more valid data on candidates’ potential suitability for the position and help organisations to recruit smart.
If your organisation is still concerned about initial impressions distorting ratings of interview questions, we suggest possibly dropping the first few questions of the interview when tallying up the interview score like they do with polygraph tests.
Those questions are the ones our study shows are likely to be most heavily influenced by initial impressions.
Applicants, on the other hand, would be wise to keep practicing the initial impressions.
Simply showing up well-dressed, speaking clearly, and even talking yourself up does not ensure you will make a good initial impression. Candidates’ ability to come off as competent, sociable, and outgoing will not just help them make a good first impression, but may also have a positive spillover in the interviewers’ ratings of candidates’ formal responses later.
This piece, along with the research it was based on, was co-authored by Brian Swider, Assistant Professor at Scheller College of Business, Georgia Institute of Technology, Murray R. Barrick of the Mays Business School at Texas A&M University, and T. Brad Harris, of the Neeley School of Business at Texas Christian University.
Interested in this topic? Read Recruitment bias: would you hire the handsome fella first?