Why You’ll Never Get the Job You Want

Every day, we make thousands of crucial decisions in a matter of seconds. What loaf of bread looks the most healthy? Which neighborhood seems safest? We make choices based on past experiences and assumptions; interviewers do too.

Ask anyone you know what process they use to make a big decision. I can almost guarantee that they’ll tell you they make a list, and then throw it out to go with their gut. Why do people do this? Why would they spend hours researching and rationalizing, then go on a whim?

The simple answer is that it’s programmed into our DNA. You might have heard of the “lizard brain” or the amygdala, the prehistoric part of your brain in charge of emotions like “fear and rage and reproductive drive (2).” When faced with an unknown, it tells us whether to stick it out and fight or run like hell. It’s a safety mechanism designed to keep you alive and unfortunately it goes off when faced with less life-threatening dangers like risking a secure 9-5 to live your dream (DO IT!).

For thousands of years, human beings (and animals) have been making split-second decisions on what they see and it’d be foolish not to at least acknowledge that this antiquated system still plays a major role in decision-making today. I’m not saying that we are a bunch of irrational nitwits who never use their brains to make choices. I’m saying (and Dr. Robert Cialdini agrees) that we are inherently lazy and in this fast-paced world that’s accelerating faster and faster every day, gut feelings are getting more and more regular use. “Where we are rushed, stressed, uncertain, indifferent, distracted, or fatigued, we tend to focus on less of the information available to us. When making decisions under these circumstances, we often revert to the rather primitive but necessary single-piece-of-good-evidence approach (3).”

I Want It Because I Want It
Hiring managers will tell you that they have a “picture” of their ideal candidate in mind. This mental image consists not just of work experience and skill set- those qualities are a given- but also quirks, likes/dislikes, and an unconscious bias based on what such a person should look like (e.g. IT dudes know their way around a hoodie and an ironic tee).

Yes, hiring managers make logical checklists for what they’re looking for; but when the candidates walk in the door, instincts set in, and reasoning walks out. The pulse races (on both sides of the table). Rational thought loses its footing on emotional stimuli. The ticking clock invokes beads of sweat like a first-time buyer cornered by a seasoned car salesman.

Off balance, the hiring manager is likely to base her decisions on what she knows. “Contrary to the rules of philosophers of science… people (and scientists, quite often) seek data that are likely to be compatible with the beliefs they currently hold (4).” The hiring manager has only visual cues to go off of, along with your responses to a list of canned company questions and your well-worked resume. My point is: if you didn’t fit the picture walking in, then you better be one hell of a talker.

When faced with incalculable unknowns and one or two surface level interviews to go off of (can you really trust someone you’ve known for a couple hours?), chances are the gut will win out. There will always be exceptions to the rule (this is the error-ridden real world of course, not Utopia ), but if you’re making a wager, you’d be a fool not to trust your gut and bet on human nature.

Zaltman, Gerald. How Customers Think. Boston Harvard Business School Press, 2003
Godin, Seth. Quieting the Lizard Brain. Blog
Cialdini, Robert. Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. William Morrow & Company. 2009
Kahneman, Daniel.Thinking, Fast and Slow. Collins, 2011