Organizational Behaviour

Managing the Contrast Effect

Judgement is an important management skill.  We used judgement every day and don’t even realize it.  Our judgements often have significant impact on other people, especially when we don’t know them well.  For example, during the employment interview.

A few months ago, I discussed the Contrast Effect. The concept of the contrast effect is that something that is dramatically different will exaggerate the contrast between it and everything else.  For example, a 6′ 7″ basketball player will make an average man of 5’10” look short. So short that we will assume that he is shorter than average.  Our brains use comparisons to place things and people in context.  Sometimes those comparisons are affected by this bias.

This bias can distort your judgements when you are meeting someone for the first time, for example, during an employment interview. Since we don’t have any other cues to help us set context, we often compare the person we are interviewing to the previous candidate.  This can, however, lead to contrast effect.  If the previous candidate was particularly good, it may make the current candidate look particularly bad, or the reverse.

Research by Derek Chapman and David Zweig suggested that a structured interview processes can help reduce the distortions of the Contrast Effect:

  1. Evaluation standardization – how much do you use standardized, numeric scores?
  2. Question sophistication – do you use behavioural and situational questions?
  3. Question consistency – do you ask the same questions in the same order for each candidate?
  4. Rapport building – Do you avoid questions that are unrelated to the position?

Research suggests that structured interviews do two things.  First, they focus on selection of candidates rather than recruitment of candidates.  This is good, because focusing on recruitment can lead to puffery and undeliverable promises. Second, structured interviews lead to less information overload and better ability to compare candidates in a (slightly) more objective manner.

Awareness of our hard-wired biases can go a long way toward correcting them.  Providing well researched solutions can help us reduce our biases when we need to rate others.

3 replies »

  1. “Awareness of our hard-wired biases can go a long way toward correcting them. ” … this seems to me the bottom line not only in conducting interviews but in almost every activity in which we participate.

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