Have you ever sat down at a job interview and started to wonder whether the person sitting opposite you, potentially your future boss, is gaining some kind of sick pleasure from your nervous sweating and agitated state? Well, you’re not alone.
A new study has found that the interviewers who use obscure brainteasers and “unanswerable” questions tend to be associated with negative, “dark-side” personality traits, including narcissism, psychopathy, and self-serving Machiavellianism.
Some of the big tech giants have been notorious for asking these kinds of questions. For example, it was once said that Google asked software engineer applicants questions like “Why are manhole covers round?” However, it seems that many companies have cut down on this practice by all accounts. In an interview with The New York Times in 2013, Google's former senior vice president for people operations Laszlo Bock called the questions “a complete waste of time”.
Along with not reflecting well on the interviewee, it seems to say something pretty negatively about the interviewer too. In the words of Bock, "they serve primarily to make the interviewer feel smart."
Writing in the journal Applied Psychology, researchers set up to discover whether the desire to use brainteasers in a hiring context is linked with dark motives. They gathered over 700 people (56 percent male, 44 percent female, and 77 percent Caucasian) and assessed them using the Short Dark Triad test, a measure of the "dark triad" of personality traits – psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism.
They were then shown a bunch of different interview questions and asked to rate the appropriateness of each on a seven‐point scale. These contained traditional-style questions and some real doozies such as “Pick two celebrities to be your parents,” “How would you explain what a chair is to an alien?” and “If you were to get rid of one state in the US, what would it be and why?” They then repeated a similar experiment with a further 496 people.
Lo and behold, their results showed that people who were more interested in asking these obscure “brainteaser” questions also scored higher on the personality test for “dark” personality traits, most likely as it is an easy way to "exploit the power imbalance in the interview."
"Based on the results presented here, it appears that callous interviewers who lack perspective taking ability will be more likely to use inappropriate or offensive hiring tactics," the study concludes.
"Employers might... consider limiting individual latitude in interview questioning, training interviewers on the potential impact of brainteaser questions, and establishing an organisational culture that discourages insensitive behaviour toward applicants."