Tricky questions are a sign of sadism


Some job interviewers aren’t clever, just nasty. Andrew Masterson reports.


Tricky question at a job interview? Don't worry. It's not you, it's him.

Tricky question at a job interview? Don't worry. It's not you, it's him.

Chris Ryan / Getty images

Interviewers who quiz job applicants with “brain teaser” questions do so not to gauge mental agility, but because they are truly unpleasant people, new research suggests.

In a paper published in the journal Applied Psychology, Scott Highhouse from Bowling Green State University in Ohio, US, and colleagues, offer up evidence to explain why deliberately left-field questions often crop up in job interviews, despite no evidence that they ever elicit useful information or insights.

Examples of the type of question they classify as brain teasers are “How many cows are there in Canada?”, “Why are tennis balls fuzzy?” and “How many windows are there in New York?”.

To conduct their research, Highhouse and his team enlisted 736 working adults and presented each with a list of interview questions. These included many classified as traditional (such as “Are you a good listener?”), others classified as behavioural (“Tell me a time when you failed.”), and brain teasers.

Having perused the list, each participant was then asked which questions they would be likely to ask should they be interviewing a job applicant.

Having done so, the volunteers were then asked to complete a standard questionnaire geared to measuring personality traits.

The results were illuminating and unsettling in equal measure.

“Results of a multiple regression, controlling for interviewing experience and sex, showed that narcissism and sadism explained the likelihood of using brainteasers in an interview,” the researchers write.

Highhouse and colleagues describe these motivations as “dark traits”, linked by a tendency towards callousness.

“These results suggest that a callous indifference and a lack of perspective‐taking may underlie abusive behaviour in the employment interview,” they conclude.

The take-home message for job-seekers is clear. If you think the smug guy asking you stupid questions is a pain in the neck, he very probably is.

  1. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/apps.12163
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