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Choose the best candidate – if your brain will let you!

Bibi Boas Bondesen

By Pia Torreck & Jasmin Dahl 

When talking about the presidential elections in the US., the term “The Beer Question” is often referred to. “The Beer Question” is an experiment that attempts to measure the likeability of politicians and the likeliness of them pulling voters, by asking voters the question – “Who would you rather drink a beer with?”. This hypothesis was partly verified during the presidential election 2016 where Donald Trump was elected.

Even when recruiting managers, you will often come to realise that “chemistry” is a crucial part of the decision making. The competent candidate might risk being deselected in favour of the more “likable” candidate. Maybe a candidate, who might fit better into the culture of the firm.

Our behavior and decisions are governed by what anthropologists call the “tribal mentality.”
People who deviate from the implicit norms of how to “behave” make us insecure.

It happens in the unconscious brain system, so we are rarely aware of it in the conscious system. But while it is useful to look for similarities and act as we usually do in a “survival perspective” (anthropologically and biologically), it leads to bad decisions in our workplaces – for example, when we unconsciously and automatically assume that a leader is a man.

Your memory omits important information

We forget important stuff. The phenomenon is called recall bias. A study from 2008 by Scott Highhouse confirms that people who recruit strongly believe their own intuition, subjectivity, and gut-feeling. They even perceive recruitment tools, such as personality tests, IQ-tests, case competitions and structured interviews, as overrated. This might suggest that our minds are playing us. Successful and well-placed recruitments when the candidate has created value and succeeded within the job are being preserved, whereas the unsuccessful recruitments are either being forgotten or justified. Our minds purposefully choose and select the data, that will verify its hypothesis – “my intuition is always right”.

We respond in a split second without using the conscious, rational, and reflective system of the brain. Daniel Kahneman

Cognitive bias (prejudice) is the most common type of bias. Studies suggest that there are more than 175 different types of cognitive bias’. Bias points to your judgement, and therefore the ability to derive decisions, assessments, and perceptions, being unreasonable or untrue. You might remember past experiences incorrectly. These perceptions can dictate your behaviour and opinion in both a positive and negative way.

Employment bias is the tendency to interpret new information in a specific way to make it in compliance with already existing understanding and opinions. In other words, we filter and omit new knowledge that might conflict with existing points of view.

Mirror, mirror on the wall

A study from 2010 of 118 hiring managers and consultants found that the interviewer’s experience of being similar to the candidate had a direct effect on how well they thought the candidate would perform and fit into the culture. (Wagstaff et al. 2010)

The problem is, that the candidate is also mirroring the interviewer. Some people are good at reading body language, tone of voice and mood and adapt accordingly. Therefore, it becomes more of an assessment of the acting abilities of the candidate rather than his/her professional competencies. (Chen et al. 2008, Peck and Levashina 2017)

Thus, you might choose the ones you think are the most similar to yourself, rather than the best candidate. It can be both in relation to gender, ethnicity, age, profession, lifestyle, interests, political attitudes, and preferences. And why not? We find safety in familiar things and fear in the foreign. It’s an ancient instinct for survival.

Furthermore, if you have other unconscious bias – remember, there are 175 or more – the choice of the candidate might easily be influenced without you being aware of it in any way. It could, for example, also be the communication between different people.

According to Victoria Brescool (2012), a study showed that male top executives, who speak more than their peers are considered more competent, whereas female top executives are considered less competent.

In another study (2012, which was repeated in Norway in 2015 and in Denmark in 2018), two identical CVs were distributed. Some of the trial participants, received the CV of the candidate “John” and other trial participants received the exact same CV – albeit with the name “Jennifer”. The trial participants were asked to rate the candidate. It turned out that “John” was perceived as more competent, with a greater potential, recommended for a higher salary, as a better leader etc.

Make recruitment more objective

Finding someone who reminds you of yourself does not necessarily have to be a problem. But it might be or become a problem in a world of high employment and high demand for labour.

Therefore, it might be of greater importance that we relate to facts and sensibility, use structured interviews, checklists and maybe even leave out name and picture when presenting the CV of the candidate to make sure that gender or age does not become a basis for assessment.

Over the years, the “war for talent” among firms has become increasingly fierce following the widespread idea that the number of talented leaders is scarce. This has contributed to a significant increase in the use of executive search firms to find and select the best candidates.

But remember – employees in search firms have biases too!


Highhouse, Scott. (2008). Stubborn Reliance on Intuition and Subjectivity in Employee Selection. Industrial and Organizational Psychology. 1. 333 – 342. 10.1111/j.1754-9434.2008.00058.x.

Brescoll, Victoria L. (2012): Who Takes the Floor and Why – Gender, Power, and Volubility in Organizations. I Administrative Science Quarterly, 56(4), 622-641. Link:

Peck, Jessica og Levashina, Julia. (2017). Impression Management and Interview and Job Performance Ratings: A Meta-Analysis of Research Design with Tactics in Mind. Frontiers in Psychology. 8. 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00201.

Vivian Chen, Chun-Hsi et al. “The Antecedent and Consequence of Personorganization Fit: Ingratiation, Similarity, Hiring Recommendations and Job Offer.” Labor: Personnel Economics (2008).

Wagstaff, M. Fernanda og Posthuma, Richard og Colella, Adrienne. (2010). Fit perceptions in the employment interview: The role of similarity, liking, and expectations. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology. 81. 173 – 189. 10.1348/096317907X238708.

2012, Dr. Corinne Moss-Racusin, 2015, Hans and Hanna – Gaustad & Raknes, 2015, 2018, Martin and Maria – Louise Sloth i DK.

About the author

Bibi Boas Bondesen


Director Executive Search, Head of International


  • Executive Search Consultant
  • Head of Business Development
  • Trade Support
  • Client Services Manager

Bibi has delivered Executive Search to a wide range of industries.
Bibi has most recently worked with Executive Search at Spencer Stuart and The Ashton Partnership in London, and she was previously employed by Morgan Stanley.
She has a Bachelor’s degree in Business Mathematics and Statistics from the London School of Economics and an MBA from Copenhagen Business School.

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