Bias Eraser #7 Illusory Correlation

Greg Barnett, Ph.D.

Guest author & Colleague, Kinsey Management

Have you seen “The Internship?” One of my favorite scenes involves Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson participating in a video interview in their quest to get an internship at Google. After some awkward small talk, the interviewers ask the following question “You are shrunken down to the size of nickels and dropped to the bottom of a blender. What do you do?” Vaughn and Wilson, do not hesitate as they provide a particularly ridiculous and hilarious (at least I think so) response. And guess what? They get the internship!

In this fictional example, interviewers made the determination that the candidates would be successful in an internship role based on their response to the interview question. As a movie scenario, this is funny, but sadly this is just a situation of art reflecting life. In fact, the internet is littered with examples of real life interview questions that mirror the fictional Google scenario above. The problem, as Lazlo Block (former CHRO of Google) emphatically states in this Inc article, “They don’t predict anything!”

So why would so many sales managers and recruiters rely on useless and sometimes crazy interview questions to find great sales talent? That answer is a cognitive bias known as the illusory correlation.

The illusory correlation occurs when people perceive there is a relationship between two variables when in fact no relationship exists at all. In this case of crazy interview questions, there is no real correlation between responses and future job performance, but that doesn’t stop people from drawing false conclusions about candidates’ personality or problem-solving skills. In fact, the only real correlation is how the answer makes the interviewer feel, which has no value in understanding how well the candidate will perform in the role.

In practice, the illusory correlation is actually a lot more serious than it appears. Not only can it lead to terrible sales hires, but it can have a serious negative impact on the diversity, equity, and inclusion progress your company is trying to achieve. That’s because the illusory correlation leads people to make all sorts of connections between unrelated variables. For example…

  • Racial Bias because someone has a bad interaction with a person of different ethnicity and then assumes all people in that race act that way.
  • Gender Bias because someone has a toxic relationship with a female boss and associates the experience with all women leaders.
  • Political Bias because a candidate comes from a politically active company and therefore must share the same values.
  • Religious Bias because someone wears a religious cross during an interview and someone assumes that they will be too conservative for the company.
  • Age Bias because someone’s parents are challenged with technology, it is assumed that all older people will face the same challenge.

As you might start to see, the illusory correlation is a way that stereotypes are formed and there is no doubt that in the sales hiring process this leads to devastating consequences. To fight this type of stereotyping, diversity and inclusion professionals have turned to implicit-bias training so that people can recognize and correct their biases. But the research shows that changing behavior is hard and these well-intended programs often come up short in creating sustainable behavioral change. Companies shouldn’t abandon these programs, but they should look for other ways to erase the bias in sales talent decision-making.

The best way to increase diversity and quality of sales hires while combatting the effects of the illusory correlation is to increase standardization and objectivity in the hiring process. Objective data that has a proven link to sales performance can be used as a check and balance on human judgment. Not only does the data, in and of itself, help to improve the quality and diversity of sales hires, but users of this data (e.g., talent decision-makers) may become more self-aware of how their own biases are leading them astray. Some ways to increase objectivity and standardization include:

  1. Using an objective assessment process that has been validated to predict success in sales jobs at your company. At PerceptionPredict, we use proven science to build a robust predictor of future job performance. In other words, there is a real correlation to job performance rather than an illusory one. As recruiters and hiring managers review assessment results on candidates, they will have solid, factual data on the probability of success which can be contrasted with their own judgment.
  2. Create a more structured interview approach. The ultimate objective when interviewing people is whether their responses provide insight into their ability to perform on the job. A structured interview approach can be crafted to ask questions that are job-relevant and a scoring scheme that can be used to fairly evaluate responses. If someone scores well on a structured interview, then they have a higher probability of being successful and that information can serve as a counterpoint to any illusory correlations based on irrelevant factors.

Erasing bias from sales hiring is a worthy challenge. Getting it right will help your organization to perform at a higher level because the talent will be better qualified and more diverse. In addition to implementing a more standardized and objective process, I encourage you to learn more. Facebook and Google have excellent online training videos and Ideal has solid resources covering diversity recruitment and diversity and inclusion for HR professionals.