First impressions matter. And first impressions are typically made at first sight. Interviewers start forming opinions about someone as soon as they walk into the room. Sometimes, it’s a gut feeling. Sometimes, it’s based on appearance, gestures or words. Hiring managers or panel members may often “like” or “dislike” an applicant with no concrete reason as to why.
Of course, there’s a reason companies conduct screening and interviews rather than solely hiring on instinct or feelings. Immediate judgements, on their own, are just not reliable ways to choose employees. Yet, that first impression, that hunch, seems to hold a lot of weight when making the final decision. This conflict between reasoning and intuition is what psychologists call System 1 and System 2 thinking.
Two systems of thinking
The concept of System 1 and System 2 thinking became more widespread with the publication of Daniel Kahneman’s bestselling book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow.” System 1, or fast thinking, is the way the brain processes familiar or repetitive situations. System 2, or slow thinking, is the way you deal with novel or complex information. Fast thinking happens without you even being aware of it. Slow thinking requires awareness and a more analytical approach.
For example, think about a person who is learning to drive a vehicle compared to someone who’s driven for years. An experienced driver on a clear, familiar road will use System 1 thinking. Using the brake, checking the mirrors and steering the vehicle will all be done without consciously thinking about doing them. The actions feel automatic, almost as if you’re in autopilot mode. On the other hand, a new or learning driver will have to give conscious thought to every action. They’ll react more slowly to situations like parking and carefully think before accelerating or braking. Driving will feel like challenging work.
System 1 thinking
System 1 thinking is exceptionally beneficial. It’s faster, and it uses less energy. Scans show that System 1 reasoning uses smaller areas of the brain; it literally requires less brainpower. There’s a strong incentive for your brain to use System 1 thinking. In most circumstances, this thinking is your default way of reacting to the world around you. Just as you might process your driving environment subconsciously, you’ll also process the people around you on instinct. You form an immediate impression of someone when they walk into an interview room. That’s System 1 reasoning in action.
Unfortunately, the factors that make System 1 so fast also make it unreliable. Psychologists believe that your brain uses processing tools called heuristics. These are mental shortcuts. Heuristics allow you to arrive at a conclusion without needing to work through all the usual steps.
For example, you’re walking down the street with a friend. They suddenly turn and point at something behind you. You automatically turn around and look. You won’t consciously think, “That person must be pointing at something I can’t see. They are probably doing that because it’s important to them. Perhaps that means it’s important to me, and I should probably look.” Instead, your System 1 reasoning uses a heuristic approach to go straight from “person pointing” to “turn and look.”
Heuristics are essential – you’d never cope with daily life if your brain didn’t use them. However, they’re also the reason for stereotyping and incorrect assumptions about other people. You can’t prevent this from happening. Your brain has a heuristic approach that draws instant conclusions about the people around you. You make instant judgements about elderly and young people, men and women, and people from a different racial or social background. You presume information based on visible features or characteristics of a person. The only way to get past these stereotypes and assumptions is to use System 2 thinking.
System 2 thinking
System 2 thinking means not only asking searching questions in an interview but carefully analyzing the answers. It means weighing what someone said, how they said it and how it relates to their responses to other questions. System 2 thinking takes effort. If it’s the end of a long day of interviews, your brain naturally wants to avoid that unnecessary effort.
Avoiding effort is why it’s so tempting to go with your System 1 first impression. Perhaps you think, “Yes, he answered the questions well, but I just didn’t warm up to him.” This argument isn’t to say that System 1 thinking is always wrong. It’s often accurate and incredibly beneficial. However, you run the risk of disregarding an excellent future employee by relying solely on one way of thinking. You must consciously decide to balance your System 1 intuitions against your System 2 analysis.
When you’re interviewing job candidates, you’ll use your skill, your experience and your intuition to make a decision. Remember that your brain naturally tends to use System 1 thinking, which is faster, more intuitive and more emotional. In this mode, you’re more likely to rely on stereotypes. Instead of giving so much weight to assumptions, allow the slower, more analytical System 2 thinking to take over. If you’re not aware of the tug-of-war in your thinking, you could end up regretting your decisions.
Take a look at a Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) resume guide; what can you say on its overall detail? Good, right? This is the same thing on candidates especially if you’re hiring someone for a much higher position. In the end, your gut feelings are backed up by facts. Throughout the interview, you may uncover information that disqualifies the candidate. Or, the candidate you were drawn to at the first meeting may be the most qualified for the position. Either way, give your first impressions a chance to turn into something concrete. Search for more data to back up your feelings, and you’re already tapping into System 2 thinking.
The first step is to be aware of your thoughts. Now that you’re aware of how you think take note of situations in which you use each type. Identify circumstances that may require you to shift thinking gears. In the future, you’ll be able to identify what kind of thinking is most appropriate quickly. During the hiring process, lean into System 2 thinking. Then, you’ll make a wise decision that you and your company can celebrate.
Danielle Cloud is a writer based in Huntsville Alabama. She writes about job interviews and career development. She also manages content in contentcampfire.com.