Misguided Intuitions: A Failure of Selection Experience

An article I have recently finished suggests that the best technological achievement of organisational psychology over the past 100 years is the creation of structured interviews, psychometric testing, and the mechanical combination of predictors to improve prediction of employee performance.  The next sentence is the one that strikes a chord with me: “arguably the greatest failure of organisational psychology is the inability to convince employers to use them”.  When the research shows that even one good cognitive ability assessment significantly out-performs unstructured interviews alone I find it vexing as to why so many still use only “gut-feelings” to make important employment decisions.

Why do even skilled HR practitioners fly in the face of science in the favour of intuition?  What has recently become apparent  to me is that it isn’t a lack of knowledge that is being reflected, nor a concern for pricing, but almost an seemingly-inexorable, unconscious assertion that experience knows best—the hiring manager knows “how to read between the lines”, there is a persistent belief that one can “just know”.  While this confidence in intuition is all very natural, the popularity of some recent ‘self-help’ work, such as Malcom Gladwell’s book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (2005) or Gerd Gigerenzer’s Gut Feelings (2007) seems to be wrongly reinforcing this belief.  It remains though, that performance prediction based only on gut feeling is relying on blind faith in a zero-validity environment. For selection to move out of a zero-validity environment it must be viewed in probabilistic terms.  We must view selection in terms of likelihood.  Ask yourself the question now, how can we improve the likelihood of a good hire?  Remember, a good hire is never guaranteed, it is only the likelihood that can be improved through smart use of validated tools and procedures, and peer-reviewed knowledge.

There is another causal factor at play—the pervasive myth of expertise.  A recent study demonstrated the confidence in one’s intuition increases significantly with experience.  Does accuracy in intuition also increase?  No.  Expertise will not necessarily significantly increase one’s ability to effectively predict candidate job performance.  The power of illusory superiority is powerful.  Many of you reading this will have already had the thought: “yeah that may apply for most, just not me”.  I’m not denying this is possible, but please do consider that we all fall victim to a bias in how we perceive our abilities. A recent study demonstrated that these misguided intuitions show a similar pattern:

  • They rely on far too few pieces of information.
  • They cannot be backed up with rationale—“don’t ask me to explain, it just feels right”.
  • They show poor interjudge (expert) agreement.  One expert isn’t agreeing with the other.
  • The belief in these intuitions will grow when irrelevant information is presented.  “Oh, you like golf as well?”

Finally, one more very interesting concern is the perception of psychometrics and the like, as a crutch to assist those “not-so-skilled” and experienced with selection.  Research supports this.  It is likely that you will be perceived as less confident in your selection decisions if you use these tools.  Relying on intuition is more socially acceptable than relying on test scores and formulas, and it’s also less fun.  So why would HR practitioners actively undermine their status by advocating the worth of objective measurement over the fragility of intuitive judgment?  I will leave that for you to answer yourself.

Highhouse, S. (2008).  Stubborn Reliance on Intuition and Subjectivity in Employee Selection. Industrial and Organisational Psychology, 1, 333-342.


One thought on “Misguided Intuitions: A Failure of Selection Experience

  1. Dr Paul Wood

    Great blog Andy. I couldn’t agree more regarding the one-sided impression created by Gladwell and others. I am actually a big fan of Gladwell (and Gigerenzer for that matter) and think that Blink communicates an important message, but a key theme missed by many is that the accuracy of your intuitions is heavily influenced by how close you are to the 10,000 hours of experience, which very very few managers or others would have clocked up interviewing and more generally selecting. I think a better, more balanced read in this space is Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow”. Provides a much better outline of the crucial role of context, constraint, and consequence when deciding on the appropriate method for decision making.


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