The Use and Misuse of Your Unconscious Psychological Assessment Tools

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TOOL BOXAmong the most important tools you bring to and use on your job are ones you may be unaware of having and using—especially when your job requires you to assess others, their skills and their tools.

These unrecognized tools are “unconscious”—not in the way a carpenter’s steel hammer is unconscious, but in the Freudian sense that even if you are fully or dimly aware of their existence, your use of them is so automatic, nameless, otherwise unverbalized, biased or ingrained in you that you are oblivious to how, when, why and with what justification you are using them (especially while using them).

These are invisible, non-physical tools—very private, personal and non-standardized. Unlike visible, standardized tools, such as the Meyers-Briggs Type Inventory, Strong Interest Inventory, Big 5 Personality Test(online version here), Thematic Apperception Test, Miller Analogies, pattern recognition and IQ tests, these “unconscious tools” and their use are not monitored, standardized, otherwise controlled or even observed by any anyone (including or besides you).

Yet, in the vetting process, they may psychologically and operationally be the most important and influential of all, with respect to making smart, right and wise evaluations of others, especially of candidates and their talents.

The list of unconscious tools I have compiled will almost certainly initially seem puzzling, because its elements probably do not resemble tools at all nor, in some instances, anything at all familiar to you. So how can these be tools you routinely use, if you don’t know what they are, that you are using them, what they are for or whether you are justified in using them?

1. Metaphors: Whether you consciously or unconsciously assess someone metaphorically, there is the risk that your choice of metaphor will shape your evaluation (rather than be shaped by it) to a degree and in ways of which you aren’t fully aware .

That’s because the imagery of metaphors (and similes, i.e., saying something “is like” something else) is evocative in more than one way: First, metaphors (e.g., thinking or saying someone is a “tiger” or a “village idiot”) evoke immediate visceral and cognitive responses

Secondly, metaphors are packed with implications and associations—often unconfirmed, that are buried in them or in your (un)conscious interpretation of them—that are basically “inferences” (deductive, inductive or “abductive”—more on these below) from the central, core metaphor.

For example, if a brokerage manager perceives or describes an eccentric “quant” (quantitative analyst) candidate as being a “village idiot”, he may—despite the candidate’s Ph.D. in math—never discover the latter’s superhuman “Rain Man” mathematical and memorization skills or more conventional talents that may more than offset his bizarre polka-dotted resume and Pee Wee Herman pink suit and clown bow-tie.

Consider the difference between assessing a potential sales manager as a “tiger” versus as a “shark”. Despite the similar, overlapping skill sets and values that support either tag, the recruiter may tilt farther toward one or the other label than the at-hand, accumulating evidence warrants, despite the enormous difference between them and the implied or predicted performance differences, e.g., in professional ethics.

Stamped “shark”, the valuable, proactive tiger may be denied any further opportunity to prove he’s not a predatory “tiger shark”. Wrongly classified as a “tiger”, a hired shark may end up biting the hand that pays him.

2. Semantic-emotive spectrum: Similar to metaphor and simile as tools, in that its power resides in how it influences the way someone or something (such as a personality trait) is framed, what I’ll call a “semantic-emotive spectrum” (a kind of “semantic differential”, which gauges responses to “opposites” such as “introverted” vs. “extroverted”) can be used to determine attitudes perceptions and emotions (or reflections of them).

For the purpose of illustration, consider the opposite ends of the positive-negative spectrum spanning “childlikeness” to “childishness”. Behaviorally, there is considerable overlap between these two traits, e.g., excitability and curiosity. Whereas childishness is always perceived as a negative, childlikeness can be an asset.SEMANTIC SPECTRUM

An assessor aware of or having access to only the overlap, rather than than of any trait or behavior that would definitively distinguish which best describes a given job candidate may, in a rush to judgment, confuse one with the other. (The metaphors of “tiger” and “shark” explored above also fall on a polarized “semantic differential” scale of this sort, as the two diametrically opposed poles of a semantic-emotive spectrum.)

This may happen as a result of bias, chance, impatience, time constraints, etc., leading the assessor to unfavorably and incorrectly conclude, on the basis of the candidate’s effusiveness, animation, described use of fantasy in the classroom, that she—the last teacher interviewed for an ECE (Early Childhood Education) position—was “childish” (which, in a teacher, suggests risky irresponsibility, lack of adaptability, low frustration tolerance, impatience and immature judgment), rather than “childlike” (playfulness, common ground with children, gentleness, imaginativeness, etc.).

When there is a conscious or unconscious “agenda”, e.g., to eliminate or favor a candidate because of some bias, exploitation of such semantic spectra can come into play with devastating effect, if not effectiveness.

3. Gestalts: The difference between whether you see a candidate as “talented, but old” or “old, but talented” will depend on which characteristic—talent or age?— is “figure” and which is “ground” (analogous to the foreground and background of the gestalt “Rubin vase” illusion).RUBIN VASE

Which you “decide” is which may be determined unconsciously, opportunistically or on the basis of pre-existing personal or organizational “weighting” of each attribute. But with practice, bias, etc., the gestalt pattern you choose for hiring is likely to become unconscious, if only because it has become automatic or politically incorrect (if not illegal).

Gestalt types are various: There are also gestalt “closure”, “continuation” and “consolidation”, illustrated, for example, by the various ways the mind can connect dots or lines or interpret already connected ones. Is this a single “M” or two “I’s wedging a “V”?

How the dots are ultimately connected may be strongly influenced by other “tools” in this list and by “confirmation bias” (the tendency to weigh, notice, connect or to otherwise favor impressions and evidence that confirms existing, favored beliefs,  values, goals, desires or fears).

Frequently, our initial and enduring perception of a gestalt can neither be controlled nor modified, e.g., for those who cannot see the two faces instead of a vase (or vice versa), or have difficulty seeing this “spinning skater” alternately rotate clockwise and counterclockwise (apparently because of an inability to reverse figure and ground). This rigidity may be all the more likely when we are not consciously trying to select or activate one or are so habituated to just one interpretation, e.g., “old=figure + talented=ground”.

4. Weightings: A recruiter doing his job will have a pretty complete grasp of the key variables of an assessment—variables whose existence and relevance he’s objectively understood and confirmed. These include a candidate’s work experience, education, technical knowledge, conscientiousness, agreeability, confidence and references, to name just a few. Where uncertainty, variability and unconscious influences arise is in connection with the weight any given recruiter assigns to each of these in general and in specific instances.

For example, “appearance” is a critical variable in any position that requires face-to-face interactions with clients, customers and visitors, even if not in staff interactions. The question is, how much weight should be given to it (irrespective of the estimated degree of attractiveness), as policy—established, for example, for commensurability of assessment results or fairness from candidate to candidate)?

In practice, the importance of physical attractiveness, as opposed to its perceived degree, may be unconsciously determined by the latter. Suppose the candidate is a stunner (gorgeous, super fit, perfectly groomed, etc.); what may happen is that, because of the degree, the weight assigned to appearance by the recruiter, manager or employer suddenly (unconsciously) skyrockets beyond normal, cratering the playing field for other less physically blessed candidates.

On the other hand, a recruiter or company may, consciously or not, use a different weighting model and rule: “If the candidate ranks in the top 1% for one or more critical variables and above the median for all others, hire immediately or at least short list him/her.”

Clearly, this second unconscious rule as an assessment tool, in contrast to scenarios in which weightings are fixed by personal or corporate policy, allows for more (in)discretion on the part of whoever is doing the hiring.

5. Associations: Like the “free association” of a psychoanalyst’s patient on a couch, the emotional and perceptual associations that spring to a recruiter’s mind in assessing a candidate may be driven by the unconscious mind, yet and also for that reason, not recognized for what they are—powerful, revealing and often irrational connections made by the mind.

Such associations, as tools, can be assets or a liability, depending on their source. If their source is repeated, rational experience, as a form of conditioning, they can be very useful, to the degree that they represent valid generalizations about types. However, if those “confirmatory” experiences are created by, rather than reinforced by the associations, the associations are likely to be counter-productive, if not destructive.

For example, if the next candidate who walks into your office eerily resembles the bully who stalked and beat you for your lunch during 9th-grade recess, it would not be too surprising if the resemblance unconsciously overwhelmed your judgment—causing you to reject him out of hand or hire him from fear of “provoking” him if you don’t.

6. Evidence filters: Assembling, sorting and weighing evidence occur only after a key process has been completed—defining beforehand what is going to count as evidence. “Evidence filtering” ambiguously designates two, different core processing tools: On the one hand, it means consciously or unconsciously “sifting evidence”; on the other, explicitly or implicitly “defining evidence”. (This is analogous to the difference between determining the degree of a variable like physical appearance and determining its importance.)

Meticulously consciously or unconsciously sorting candidates by height or age, however precisely and accurately done, will count for nothing if height and weight are irrelevant to performance of the job or disallowed as criteria.

Yet, when such meticulous sorting has been undertaken and completed, the success of that process may unconsciously be mistaken for or mixed-up with the proper execution of the prior task, namely, deciding what is going to count as evidence in the first place.

This is a risk when evidential standards are taken for granted, have become habitual or fossilized, or otherwise have become inappropriate, e.g., because of legislation outlawing some of them or because of “changing times” and markets.

7. Probability estimates: As a vetting tool, your personal probability estimates of the capabilities, organizational fit, reliability of references, etc., rank—for better or worse—among the most influential, if not most valuable. In your evaluating anyone, including candidates, such estimates can be decisive, whether as distortions or as hoped-for insights and accurate judgments.

The problem with probability estimation as an unconscious, highly subjective tool is its susceptibility to distorting influences and misuse. Because the probabilities we estimate are almost always “subjective probabilities” (rather than, for example, “frequency probabilities” that are based on careful examination, evaluation and application of observed data).

Worse, we often tailor our probability estimates to our priorities, desires and biases, rather than—as we should—the reverse. A recruiter in the middle of an interview wants to leave for lunch; so, he concludes, he’s “probably” heard enough and, accordingly, cuts the interview short. “Probably”? Is this based on a careful statistical review of past interviews, their duration, completeness, efficacy and fairness? Not likely. Far likelier is that he tailored the probability estimate to his blood sugar levels.

8. Inferences: What metaphors, associations, probability estimates, evidence filters, weightings and even some gestalts have in common is that, one way or another, they all depend on inference (often unconscious). As such, inferences are of three types: inductive, deductive and “abductive”.

The bully example illustrates a key form of inductive reasoning: generalizing from some past instance(s) to conclude something about the next or the present one. “He looks like the school bully who was dangerous. Therefore, he will be dangerous too.”

Hiring a knockout can involve deductive reasoning: “(S)he’s a knockout; knockouts are good for business. Therefore, (S)he will be good for business.”

The technical difference between the two, in a too-small nutshell, is that only in the case of a valid deductive inference, if the assumptions are true, the conclusion must be true. With inductive inference, the most that can be hoped for is that the conclusion is probably true, e.g., “This guy is probably a bully too.”

“Abductive” inference (first conceptualized by the 19th-century American philosopher, Charles Sanders Pierce) is less familiar. It means finding some way to explain some fact or facts and doing then arguing deductively. Its general form looks like this:

1. The surprising fact, C, is observed;
2. But if A were true, C would be a matter of course.
Therefore, there is reason to suspect that A is true.

For example, a candidate has a swastika tattoo on his forearm. You’ve never really seen one on a physician before, so really reliable induction is out, even though you know what swastikas generally mean. You don’t have enough information about the candidate to make a deduction from facts that are known to be true.

In this personnel assessment situation, “abduction” (which, in logic, has nothing to do with kidnapping) could operate like this: Your mind searches for some possible explanation, and you speculate that the physician has studied Ayurvedic medicine in India, and got the tattoo as a good luck symbol (which it is throughout Southeast Asia—although commonly displayed in reversed, counterclockwise form).

When abduction is rigorously used as an assessment or explanatory tool, it is a powerful technique; otherwise, and especially when applied unconsciously, all bets are off.

9. Inertia: It must sound extremely odd to list “inertia” as a tool, but consider this—As “resistance to change or external forces”, inertia is a useful tool to the extent that it sets screening and evaluation thresholds to protect existing standards, much as the inertia of “tradition” does in cultures and societies.

But that is exactly what cultural or corporate inertia is: a tool for vetting prospective change. Is the candidate too “radical” or “different”, e.g., a good fit in your existing corporate culture? Your personal inertia or the inertia implicit in your screening mandate will be an important factor in whether you think so or not.

The challenge in wielding it, as is the case with any of these assessment tools (or any other tool, for that matter), is to use it with the right force, timing and warrant.


By Michael Moffa