July 19, 2013

A Humbling Interpretation of Screening and Selection

If you want to find some subtle, unflattering reasons why anyone chooses anyone over others, ask a cynic or someone with a well-developed capacity for humility.

In this connection, they will argue that there is no reason to be smug or cocky about having been selected as an employee, a president, vice president, a spouse, an NBA draft pick, a CEO, an American Idol finalist, a boyfriend or girlfriend, a college freshman, a scholarship winner, or anything else in competition and in preference to all others.

That humbling perspective is, of course, one aspect of the positive wisdom of humility and of respect for luck (if not “destiny”) as a key factor in “winning”.  But, it also can reflect a distaste and contempt for delusions and conceit, and a flair for complex analysis.  The humble cynic wants to deflate our egos that all too easily assume that, when we are selected, it is because we are “the one” (or the most one-derful one—the more-than-perfect, irreplaceable one (at the office or on the sofa at home).

Whether it’s vanity (in the form of susceptibility to flattery or adulation), conceit or simply wishful thinking, there are three beliefs we find very seductive: We aren’t “lucky”—we’re deserving. We aren’t merely good—we’re God. Above all, we aren’t merely perfect; we’re “special”. (Even though perfection is perfectly good, in allowing that others are equally perfect, it can never satisfy those extremely competitive individualists who believe that nothing less than being uniquely special will suffice.)

Whether or not these become delusions, to which we succumb, they are, in any case, beliefs and attitudes that are hard to resist. Instead of being “realists”, we may yield to the temptation to flatter ourselves and think no one else could possibly have been a better choice or ever replace us.

To get a feel for the generality of this humble cynical perspective, apply it to the two most important screenings most of us ever face: selection as a mate and selection as an employee. Romanticizing, mystifying or otherwise exaggerating our success and specialness, we are likely to be very reluctant to believe we were chosen only, mostly or at least partly because of

  1. LIMITED KNOWLEDGE AND/OR ACCESS: Somebody gets selected because of the chooser’s incomplete knowledge of or limited access to all of the (better) alternatives to a given candidate or incumbent.

Once upon a time, that kind of knowledge was not so limited or incomplete. Our genes evolved in small migratory or settlement groups, not in mega-hive multi-million-resident cities. Hence, the kind of complete knowledge of and unimpeded access to the small number of potential candidates for marriage (or anything else, including tool making and hunting) that was possible at our genetic dawn is utterly impossible now, despite the delusion—fostered  by Hollywood romantic comedies and dramas—that it is.

Like moths programmed to fly in spirals into a modern lamp because they mistake it for the moon (by which they navigate) or crash into car headlights because of being genetically unprepared for speeding cars, we are programmed to fly into a modern relationship or hire as though we are in a small village of Paleolithic intimates, instead of in a sprawling 21st-century megalopolis teeming with uncountable strangers (who increasingly seem to count for less and less).

Like the moths genetically unprepared for lamps and whizzing headlights, we emotionally get burned or splattered as we do what we are programmed to do: to choose as though our minuscule population samples are the whole population.

The delusion that we have made a fully-informed choice feeds off the emotional illusion that the few we actually know really represent our entire community and the local population, or are at least a foolproof, reliable sample. However, because recruiting is a more informed, rational, careful and systematic process than dating, and has smaller pools, the delusional risk is usually smaller, but still substantial, especially when selection is based on a small sample of applicants or under biasing time-pressure or other psychological blinders.

  1. OPPORTUNISM: Opportunism and adaptation on the part of those doing the choosing under constraints and under less than ideal selection conditions are misperceived by the candidate as proof of his or her utter specialness.

Social, professional and genetic survival depends on seizing opportunities and birds in the hand, unless the better or equally desirable birds in the bush are not too far off or too few.

Since choice is always under constraint, being chosen always reflects the constraints as much as, where not more than, the qualifications for being chosen. Everybody knows that; few want to admit it. Others try to minimize its influence.

  1. SELECTION HANDICAPS: The chooser’s lack of patience, effort, imagination, independence, information (cf. knowledge above), confidence, experience, time, energy or other selection resources results in a choice that is hardly as perfect or special as the candidate (or the selector) imagines himself or herself to be.

Unworldly, but appealing Jill marries nondescript Jack because of a

  •  lack of experience with men (and basis for comparison)
  •  lack of patience (in waiting for someone more suitable)
  •  lack of self-confidence (surprised that anyone would want to marry her)
  •  lack of effort (to meet other guys in other ways besides through friends)
  •  lack of imagination (having read no Harlequin or Victorian romantic novels)
  •  lack of time (given the hour on her biological clock and a very busy work schedule)
  • lack of independence (sufficient to resist peer and parent pressure to marry somebody, anybody)
  • lack of information (about Jack’s shortcomings and the alternative guys available)
  • lack of energy (either through exhaustion from work or from search/evaluation fatigue)
  • lack of other resources, such as money, e.g., funds to join a dating service.

Now, in this list of selection handicaps, replace Jill with a recruiter to look for parallels between being chosen as a spouse and being chosen as an employee, e.g., because the recruiter lacked the time, patience or the imagination to try a different kind of job posting.

  1. DELAYED RECALCULATION: Because of factors such as “cognitive dissonance reduction”, i.e., rejecting strong evidence that one’s cherished beliefs or choices are wrong, selections vulnerable to unfavorable revision and review instead have these postponed until later or indefinitely.

It gradually dawns on Jill that Jack is a bad choice, but she marries him anyway, since she is in “too deep” or too uncomfortable with the prospect of having to revisit and revise her core beliefs about Jack, or withdraw all those wedding invitations.A  cash-strapped recruiter, with one eye on a fat commission, puts off a reassessment, despite good reasons to undertake one.

In both cases, the reason the recalculation is postponed or completely shelved is the human predilection for “cognitive dissonance reduction”: the inclination to ignore unwelcome additional information that conflicts with a pre-existing strongly-held opinion.  Given the recruiter’s inaction, the candidate remains convinced (s)he is perfect for the job.

  1. HALO EFFECT: A single positive impression, penetration of a core filter or high score on a key parameter can play a disproportionate role for a screening and retention “halo effect” that makes everything about someone selected seem perfect, once anything at all, such as that fantastic first impression, does.

It is quite common, if not universal, to select others by means of an checklist of essential attributes, which, if possessed, crown other attributes with a halo; once there are sufficient positive impressions, everything else about them that would otherwise be nothing special, or even be annoying or boring, becomes fascinating.

Think of the minds and decision making of others as being like cheap combination locks that will open if you get three or four numbers approximately right. After that, no matter what numbers you twirl to, the lock will stay open. The halo effect is like that, except for the additional feature that nothing you do, however “bad” or “wrong”, will close the lock again.

The extreme case is the very expensive combination lock that opens for a decrepit but rich old man involved with a gold digging exotic dancer who will marry him if and only if he can produce just one number—a joint bank account number. After that, the gold ring snatched from him becomes his halo and the (bank) lock remains forever open.

Because employment is so results driven and so often subject to careful review, the halo effect is less commonly, although not never, observed. It does occur, e.g., nepotism (hiring a relative), serial hiring (hiring someone because someone else hired him or her), romance (retaining an incompetent subordinate because of a passionate relationship) and even keeping a proven incompetent around merely because (s)he makes the boss feel good about himself (for whatever reason)—the latter constituting a kind of “slipped halo” effect.

  1. ACCEPTABLE NET COSTS:  Being chosen is often merely a matter of imposing acceptable net selection costs for a given level of benefit, e.g., net opportunity cost, understood as the decision or resource cost of choosing X instead of Y. Once those costs rise high enough, the clear winner becomes the clear loser.

Other costs that, upon rising, reverse the selection preference include

    • maintenance costs associated with being chosen
    • replacement costs or opportunities for replacement
    • upfront resource costs in the selection, e.g., recruiter commission, candidate’s probationary salary, expense of first dinner date
    • search and evaluation costs associated with being selected, as compared with the search and/or evaluation costs associated with someone else’s being vetted and selected. These costs correlate with opportunity cost.
    1. OVERREACTION: One form of overreaction is an endorsement and enthusiasm entirely misleading and disproportionate to the facts of the case, which will make even the humblest convinced of his or her incontestable, unsurpassable specialness in having been selected.

    One form of overreaction is ours, in being selected. We misread the enthusiasm of those who have chosen us as proof that not only are we wonderful, but also that we are the most wonderful (who exists or could possibly exist). The other form is overreaction on the part of the selector, who, for any of a number of reasons, including sheer naiveté, loses perspective and vastly overrates the selected.

    1. DELUSIONAL MYSTICISM: belief that “fate”, “destiny”, “karma” or “The Secret” have made our choosing and/or being chosen a magical inevitability. This is how Hollywood dodges the realities of  (unconscious) algorithm-driven cost-benefit selections in an overpopulated planet where chance, convenience, calculation, constraints and conformity (to parental, pop-cultural or peer norms) govern far more selections than Tinsel Town movies would have us believe. 

    Recruiters and other business people, being more hard-headed, are likely to be more resistant to such magical notions, but not entirely—especially if they have flirted, as some I know have, with New Age concepts like “the law of attraction” (that pretty much guarantees you’ll get what you want if you wish for it, since, unlike what is the case with two positive (or two negative) poles of magnets, it posits that “likes attract likes”).

    Imagine what romantic movies would be like if they were as brutally, neurotically and stupidly transparent as Woody Allen has been in many of his: In one of his movies—I’ve forgotten which one (which is easy to do, given their similar themes) Woody is entangled in bed sheets with a ravenous older woman who tells him that he is “the best lover in the world”.

    Allen turns to the camera to whisper an aside—“I don’t know that I can feel comfortable being with a woman in a position to know that” (or words to that effect), a remark rich in the implication that the woman is delusional, dangerous or both—and, in any case, decidedly not setting a romantic, “special” mood or providing any assurances to Woody that he is either.

    That kind of very unaverage thought from such a Woody Allen average neurotic character would never surface to the consciousness of the average modern guy (or woman).

    Instead, the “compliment” would be evidence of the role of destiny or karma in bringing them together.

    Above all, the notion that they may have ended up together because of acceptable respective opportunity and other costs would be as unpalatable to their egos as the idea that Rambo really needed any help in saving the world after having been selected for that job.

    …or the idea that that the last time you were hired, kissed or married, it was not because you were and still are, in fact, the very best.

    Read more in Unemployment

    Michael Moffa, writer for Recruiter.com, is a former editor and writer with China Daily News, Hong Kong edition and Editor-in-chief, Business Insight Japan Magazine, Tokyo; he has also been a columnist with one of Japan’s national newspapers, The Daily Yomiuri, and a university lecturer (critical thinking and philosophy).