Have you ever interviewed for a National Football League (NFL) team? What do you think they will ask you?
“Tell me about yourself," or, “Why do you want to be an NFL player?”
Well, you would be lucky if those were the only interview questions you have to answer. In fact, some NFL teams are known to ask extremely uncomfortable and borderline-illegal questions during the NFL combine interview. Players have been asked about their lost testicles, sexuality, and even their fear of clowns. The rationale behind asking these questions? Put the candidates under stress and see how they react.
But do these questions work? Do they tell the interviewer anything meaningful about a candidate? Unfortunately, the answer is no.
Outside of the NFL, some organizations have experimented with “brainteaser” questions (e.g., “Why are manholes round?”). These questions try to take the candidate out of their comfort zone. Psychological research, however, has found that these questions do not measure any meaningful or job-relevant skills and abilities. Furthermore, job applicants might even be turned off to the company if the questions are perceived to be irrelevant and distressful. Despite being one of the early adopters of the “brainteaser” interview questions, Laszlo Bock, former vice president of people operations at Google, terminated the whole practice and stated that “brainteasers are a complete waste of time … they primarily serve to make the interviewer feel smart.”
Maybe Laszlo is onto something. Are interviewers asking these questions simply to feel a sense of superiority over the applicant? Do some interviewers get a kick out of pushing other people’s buttons?
Along with my colleagues, Scott Highhouse and Chris Nye, we put this question to the test in a paper published in Applied Psychology: an International Review. We measured 167 interviewers on the various “dark traits,” which represent the negative side of personality. Next, participants were asked whether or not they would endorse various brainteaser-type questions during a job interview. In line with Laszlo’s observations, we found that interviewers with high narcissism and sadism were more willing to ask brainteaser interview questions.
From an applicant's perspective, the interview is the first direct contact with a prospective organization. A distressful interview experience may adversely impact the organization’s reputation and image. In the world of social media, the interviewers and the company they represent are put in the spotlight. Job applicants can now leave reviews on websites such as Glassdoor if they experience inappropriate or abusive interviewing practices. In an increasingly competitive labor market, it is crucial for organizations to attract the best talent. Organizations that treat their applicants poorly during the selection process may lose out on some of the best future employees.
So next time you're thinking of being clever by asking a brainteaser question, consider what the question might say about you and your organization.
Highhouse, S., Nye, C. D., & Zhang, D. C. (2019). Dark Motives and Elective Use of Brainteaser Interview Questions. Applied Psychology, 68(2), 311–340. https://doi.org/10.1111/apps.12163.