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Lindsay Hanson

Head Heart + Brain

Design Lead, Leadership And Capability Programmes

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The Neuroscience of Interviewing – Part 1


This article is the first of a two-part series. View the second article: The Neuroscience of Interviewing – Part 2

If you are involved in the interview process for your company and you don’t know the answers to these questions then you might want to read on….

  • "Tell me about your approach to hiring – do you hire with a growth or fixed mindset?”
  • “Interviewing, by its very nature, is a stressful situation; how do you ensure that you are not triggering a limbic attack in your candidates?”
  • “How do you ensure that your brain’s need for reward is not at the expense of a threat for the candidate?”

Growth mindset versus fixed mindset

Carol Dweck, Standford University psychologist, has spent decades researching the impact of mindset on achievement and success.  She believes that it’s not just our skills and abilities that bring us success but whether we approach our goals with a fixed or growth mindset. 

What’s the difference?

If we take a fixed mindset, we believe that talents are innate and static and as a result see effort as fruitless. Those with a growth mindset believe that talent can be developed and consequently see effort as the pathway to mastery. (For those of you who are interested in this idea read Dweck’s latest book, “Mindset – How You Can Fulfil Your Potential”).

If you belong to the former group, then it is likely that you will be looking for individuals who exhibit skills and abilities that are required in the role from day one. Obviously, this is likely to make your recruitment challenge more difficult because you have a narrow criteria and a smaller pool of suitable candidates. Conversely, if you have a growth mindset you will be hiring for potential and consequently you can take advantage of a larger talent pool because you have a broader set of criteria.


You may enjoy this article: Can neuroscience enhance acceptance of Emotional Intelligence?


You should also consider exploring what mindset your candidate has too. Those with fixed mindsets will often avoid challenge and give up easily in the face of obstacles. They dislike negative feedback and feel threatened by the success of others. On the other hand, those with a growth mindset embrace challenge and persist in the face of setbacks. They see effort as the pathway to mastery and as a result learn from criticism. They find lessons and inspiration in the success of others.

Incidentally, candidates who ask for feedback are signaling their growth mindset and if you are selecting for this mindset, candidates who readily answer questions about what they would have done differently or what they learnt about a situation are again showing this mindset.

Going Limbic

We often take for granted how stressful the interview situation can be for the candidate, particularly if interviewing is a large part of your role. However, if you put yourself in the candidate’s shoes you will soon understand that being probed and examined is bound to increase anxiety levels. 

According to Jessica Payne we perform at our best when we are mildly stressed. So the situation itself is enough to create the ideal conditions. As interviewer consider what your intention is when interviewing – ideally it should be to put the candidate at ease or at the very least into a moderately stressed state.  

In situations of extreme stress, our prefrontal cortex, also known as the CEO of the brain, is taken over by the limbic system (a complex set of structures that appears to be primarily responsible for our emotional life). When we are overly stressed, our limbic system kicks in and takes over, our prefrontal cortex shuts down and we can appear to freeze. This can happen in interviews where candidates simply can’t think of an example to answer a competency based question.

How the interviewer handles this can be the difference between getting the best out of the candidate or shattering their confidence; resulting in the interview going from bad to worse..

How is CORE relevant?

The CORE model is a great way to explore how people relate to each other and how our brains may be impacting the interaction between interviewer and candidate.

Essentially, we are social beings, and as such, motivation of our social behavior is to minimise threat and maximise reward. The CORE model identifies four areas where threat and reward are most commonly triggered. These are where certainty, options, reputation and equity are at play.

In the interview situation, the interviewer holds all the aces. There is a huge sense of certainty for the interviewer. They know exactly how long the interview will last, what questions they will ask (well hopefully), what they are looking for etc.  So, anything the interviewer can do to give the candidate a sense of certainty will help alleviate a sense of threat. This can start even before the physical interview by sending out information to the candidate about what they should expect. In the interview, always start by giving an overview to what you will cover – think about it as the key stages and cover these with the candidate.  As you do this, you can sometimes see the candidate relax as they visibly get a reward in their brain through receiving a sense of certainty.

The second area is the degree to which we feel we have options in a given situation. Again, the interviewer can choose which questions to ask, and when, whilst the candidate has no choice but to do as directed and to answer the questions that they are asked.  Once again, this creates a sense of reward for the interviewer and threat for the candidate. This may be an area where it is a little more difficult to create a sense of choice for the candidate. Perhaps, where there are a number of selection activities giving them a choice about what they do first – but this is not always possible. 

Reputation is also key. It goes without saying that in relative terms the interviewer is much higher status than the candidate in this situation. Remember to find ways of boosting the candidate’s status. This can be achieved through little things like congratulating them on attending a particular university if they are graduate for example.

Finally, it goes without saying that equity is important. Look for ways to make your process transparent, consistent and fair. Even if your process is challenging, as long as the candidate perceives it as fair, they will reflect positively on you and the company. 

So what can we learn from all this? 

For me, the learning is about being more conscious of how our brain works and then using what we know to support what we are doing – in this case interviewing. Knowing, for example, that we perform best when we are mildly stressed and making sure that we create an environment that fosters this. Being mindful of our own brain and its desire to seek rewards in the interview situation and looking for ways to give that boost to the candidate, all makes for a more brain-savvy interview process. 

After all, whether you hire that person or not, we want them to go away feeling they have had a good experience and that your company is a great one to work for. 

Meanwhile, thanks for coming along today and taking the time to meet with me. Successful candidates will be invited back to the second stage of our interview process where we explore the impact of bias. 

We’ll be in touch.

One Response

  1. Limbo, limbo, Limbic lower now

    Surely the intense focus of an interview is not to unearth a contemplative mind, but intended to simulate the realworld pressures of deadlines and overwhelming complexities? Anyone whose rest & repose parasympathetic nervous system is subjugated by the fright/flight/fight limbic activation of adrenergic response is going to get sick in the workplace, fact.

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Lindsay Hanson

Design Lead, Leadership And Capability Programmes

Read more from Lindsay Hanson