Common cognitive biases in selection and assessment and how you can turn them to your advantage

Ed Mellett takes a look at some of the most common biases at play during assessment and selection events.

When we go into a selection or assessment event we all want to know that we are being judged fairly and on the basis of our actual knowledge, skills and abilities, rather than on other irrelevant characteristics we may hold.

However, there may be occasions when this doesn’t happen, and recruiters may make decisions that are skewed by their background, personal and cultural values and life experiences. This is usually entirely subconscious and most people feel that they are fair and without prejudice.

These unconscious factors that influence our judgement of people or situations are called cognitive biases.

What are cognitive biases and where do they come from?

When humans interact with the world there is a huge amount of information they need to sift and make sense of really, really quickly. In order to manage the cognitive load (the amount of thinking required) the brain takes shortcuts; we don’t always properly analyse the information we receive.

We may make generalisations based on previous experiences or deeply held beliefs. Or make assumptions, miss critical information or weigh the relative importance of different pieces of information incorrectly.

To manage the cognitive load (the amount of thinking required) the brain takes shortcuts; we don’t always properly analyse the information we receive.

From an evolutionary perspective this makes a lot of sense – primitive man needed to interpret the dangers in their environment quickly and respond without necessarily working through all of the details. It was critical to their survival.

However, this natural tendency to take mental shortcuts is still with us today where it tends to exist in the forms of stereotypes, beliefs about the world or prejudices. We all have these and they influence how we see and interact with the world.

Why do cognitive biases matter in selection and assessment?

Cognitive biases are particularly important in the field of selection and assessment because they mean that recruiters may not always select the best possible candidate for the job. This matters for the organisation, as they miss out on top talent, and it matters for individuals because it is unfair.

Especially if particular demographic groups are facing systematically discrimination. The Equality Act 2010 makes it illegal to discriminate against anyone on the basis of one of the ‘protected characteristics’ such as gender, age, race, religion or disability, and most recruiters would not dream of discriminating in this way.

Many undertake training to ensure they are aware of their biases, and well-designed assessment and selection events seek to minimise the opportunity for biases to arise. However, biases do still crop up and being aware of them can help you work out how to combat them or even turn them to your advantage.

Common cognitive biases in selection and assessment

There are a number of particularly common types of cognitive bias, let’s take a look at a few.

  • ‘Like me’ bias (also known as affinity bias). This is when individuals hold a preference for people they think are like them in some way. It arises because the brain recognises similarities between you and finds it easy to relate to the other person. Familiarity is comfortable and safe.

For example, if someone has a similar background to you, or enjoys similar hobbies, it is easy to think ‘well they must be ok, they are like me’.

Use this to your advantage by proactively aiming to build rapport with the interviewers. Try to find common ground with them – the small talk at the start of the interview is particularly useful for this. Refer back to any shared interests or experiences in your answers.

  • Confirmation bias. This is when we subconsciously look for information that confirms our first impression of a person, or what we already know about them. This can make it difficult to see or assimilate information to the contrary, and lead to an overemphasis on evidence that supports your expectations.

For example, if you have heard that a candidate lacks interpersonal skills you will be focusing more on anything that backs up this expectation. This also works the other way around, for example, if you have heard a candidate is really charming and great at influencing, then you might focus on gathering data that confirms this.

Use this to your advantage by trying to set an expectation in the mind of recruiters that you will be really good. For example, you could encourage others in your network to talk about your strengths with the recruiters, or develop an outstanding LinkedIn profile with many positive comments from others. Avoid doing anything that might accidentally trigger the recruiters to be looking for evidence of development need, such as being late.

  • Primacy and recency effects – Recruiters are most likely to remember the first and last things that happen in an interaction such as an interview. This is because there is so much information shared within an interview that it is hard to remember everything. Making notes and following a structured marking scheme can help mitigate against this.

Use this to your advantage by making sure that you make a good first and last impression. Enter the room with confidence and positivity. Try and use your best example in response to the first question. Have some good questions to ask the recruiter at the end. Similarly, just before you leave the interview try to find an opportunity to summarise why you would be great for the role and why you want it so much, so that this remains in the mind of the panel.

  • Halo and horns effect. This is the tendency to allow a strength or weakness in one area to colour your overall impression of someone. For example, in an interview, if the candidate gives an impressive answer to one question, this may lead an interviewer to believe that they have greater overall strengths than they do.

The converse also applies; if a candidate gives a particularly poor answer to one of the questions the interviewer may subconsciously dismiss them and not listen properly to other, more positive, examples.

Use this to your advantage by preparing fully for the interview. Make sure that you have got great examples to share and practice delivering these confidently. Get some feedback on what would make the responses even better. If you can, try to find out what is particularly important to the interviewer and make sure that you can positively address this.


About the author:

Ed Mellett is an entrepreneur, careers professional and founder of



Learn More →

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *