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The psychology behind three common job interview questions

Dorian Minors • December 17, 2015

This is an archived article from our predecessor website, The Dirt Psychology. The idea there was to take psychological scholarship and turn it into wisdom. The Armchair Collective tries to go a little further than just psychology. As such, these articles live here in archive form, until they're updated.

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).

But despite all this, there's a pretty high chance you'll come across the same three kinds of questions and here's why.

General questions

These are the 'easy' questions. 'Where are you from', 'what did you major in', and so on. They're designed to boost the candidates confidence but also to remind the interviewer who the candidate is and what their background and context is. It's not about assessment here (although impressions can be made about a person). No one is assessing competency. These just set the mood.

Situational questions

It's one thing to talk about how you'd round up all the animals if they escaped and put them back in their cages, but have you ever tried to lasso a giraffe?

These are the hypothetical 'what would you do if...' or 'this is going on, how would you handle it'. They are questions with a future orientation, because it's all about what the candidate would do in any given situation. These questions are designed to test your underlying assumptions and intentions. Ideally, these underlying assumptions and intentions will allow one to predict behaviour and the research shows the link is moderately strong with a correlation of ~.45. However these questions won't always predict behaviour because although one might intend to do something in an ideal mindframe, there are plenty of variables that might affect the outcome (ever tried to serve a jerk customer on a bad day?). Plus, the interviewer's motivations are usually fairly clear, so one could take a stab at the 'right' answer. Or, for some people, they might be awesome but unable to articulate it well.

Behavioural questions

These questions assess what you've done in the past and they tend to be a cornerstone of even the worst modern job interview. It's a 'think of a time when... And how did you react?' question. These questions are often designed around some kind of key competency (skill or ability) related to the job based on the assumption that the past predicts the future, something again backed by research with a  correlation of ~.55. These questions come in three parts: the antecedent which is related to the competency 'think of a time when... happened', then the behaviour ('what did you do'), followed by the consequence ('and how did that end up/what were the results/what did you learn'). The ABC (literally) of behavioural psychology. You may also be familiar with the STAR method (which is actually a very good way of framing a response to this kind of question), which stands for 'Situation', 'Task', 'Action', 'Response'. These questions are a cornerstone of interviews because:

There you have it, three common interview questions and in reality the only ones you should face if your interviewer is any good (which they probably won't be). Hopefully, by knowing the kinds of questions you face going in, you'll come out on top. A job interview is a place where you and your employer can start advertising your best features to each other. Learn how we do this any time we meet new people and how, sometimes, lying is all a part of the social dance. And read about how talking to yourself actually boosts performance (if you do it right). Giving you the dirt on your search for understanding, psychological freedom and 'the good life' at The Dirt Psychology.

Turning scholarship into wisdom we can use at The Armchair Collective.

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Dorian Minors

I mostly do brain science. Sometimes I train honeybees. I promise they're related. I made this site because there's no reason why scholars should be the only ones to own knowledge. My special interests are interpersonal relationships, the science of community, spirituality and the brain, and the neural basis of complex behaviour. I hope this stuff is as interesting to you as it is to me. You can find out more about me here.