The psychology behind four horrible job interview questions

by Dorian Minors

December 3, 2015

Analects  |  Newsletter


Job interviews can come in a few different forms. They can be structured or unstructured, single interviewer or a panel, or even the game-show like future of job interviews, the ‘multiple mini interview’. And job interviews can be useful, for...

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Job interviews can come in a few different forms. They can be structured or unstructured, single interviewer or a panel, or even the game-show like future of job interviews, the ‘multiple mini interview’. And job interviews can be useful, for fleshing out some of the  competencies required in a job (like interpersonal skills), but are often used badly for the wrong reasons (like trying to assess personality).

Interviewing is hard, and not a lot of employers know what makes it effective see? So, there's a pretty high chance you'll come across these four horrible questions and here's why.

Contrary questions

Contrary questions are actually the sign of a good interviewer, but are a very bad sign. In this article, we talked about how job interviews are fraught with a high probability that the interviewer is walking away biased. It could be for or against you and are often broadly accurate, but it's always a problem for an interviewer who wants to be as accurate as possible. So a well-versed and seasoned interviewer will ask contrary questions to try and break those biases. Since these biases often happen early upon meeting and change slowly once formed, an interviewer might immediately ask for disconfirming evidence when they feel a judgement forming. So they might ask about a time you didn't do well after you recount a story of your efficacy, or they might ask for a time you did something well after you tell them of a failure. Either way, it can be very disconcerting and certainly can hint at the mind behind your interviewer (which may be a scary thing).

Challenge questions These are a kind of question used when the answer to a question isn’t what the interviewer is looking for. Often, it’s that a candidate appears not to have understood the question but sometimes, it might be that someone has gotten off track. It tends to be an interruption or a ‘yes, but…’ followed by a similar kind of question. It’s designed to retread you, so you’re addressing the competency they want and can really put you off your game. Although, realistically, if you recognise this happening, you can really establish what the interviewer is looking for here.

Problematic questions This is a kind of catch-all that can be hard to spot, but indicates an interviewer that doesn’t know what they’re doing (and thus, is a bad sign for your job ambitions and ability to ace this thing). Often, interviewers know what competencies they’re looking for and will (read: should) ask questions directed at these specifically. But something, especially if one hasn’t planned properly, they’ll ask questions that tap into the wrong competencies or worse, no competencies at all and are thus extraordinarily hard to evaluate (for the employer). So, if you notice that a question asks about something not in the position description or doesn’t seem to be related to a skill/ability at all (perhaps trying to tap into intelligence or personality which is essentially useless in an interview) then it might be time to consider back-up job opportunities.

Knock-Out questions The worst kind of question. These are questions that are either designed to be unexpected (to see who’s ‘good enough’ to answer them well) or designed to test something about the role that is crucial. So in an unexpected question, it might be a particularly tough or unrelated questions (about philosophy for example or a bizarre unlikely scenario) . These are super hard to judge potential performance from and are really not very informative according to research. In a tester question, they might ask ‘do you like to travel’, for a role in which travel is essential. Either way, the answer to this question probably means you’re in or you’re out. And either way, they’re usually a bad idea.

The unfortunate thing is that all four of these questions still get asked in interviews. Which is a shame, because really interviews aren’t that useful as it stands. Hopefully, knowing what these look like going in, you’ll be able to handle yourself with a bit more composure. By golly, I wish you luck!

Got a job interview coming up? Learn how to deal with anxiety and make a good first impression. You might be interested to find out how meditation can really boost performance too. Giving you the dirt on your search for understanding, psychological freedom and ‘the good life’ at The Dirt Psychology.

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