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Study: Brain teasers in job interviews mainly reveal the sadistic traits of the interviewer

Riddle me this: what do brain teasers tell you during a job interview? A lot, but not about the applicant.

Which has more advertising potential in Boston, a flower shop or a funeral home? How could you solve humankind's biggest crisis given $1 billion and a spacecraft? What is the number of new book titles published in the U.S. each year?

You probably don’t know the answers to these questions, and they don’t really have anything to do with what most people do on a day to day basis, but brain teasers like these — the kind that Google became notorious for asking its job candidates — can pop up during job interviews anyway. While they might not be of much use for understanding how well people can do their job, a new study shows that the brain teasers tell us a lot about the person who asks them.

Riddle me this!

The study, published in Applied Psychology, was carried out by Scott Highhouse of Bowling Green State University, Christopher Nye of Michigan State University, and Don Zhang of Louisiana State University. It involved 736 individuals.

Each test subject was given a list of potential interview questions which were either traditional ('are you a good listener?'), behavioral ('give me an example of when you made a mistake and how you corrected it.'), or a brain teaser. They were then asked which questions they were likely to use in an interview they were conducting. The subjects then took personality tests.

After accounting for factors of gender [i] and experience giving interviews, the researchers found that a person who says they would use brain teasers in an interview is more likely to be narcissistic, sadistic, socially inept, and callous. They are also more likely to believe in the use of intuition during an interview.

A second experiment found that the use of brain teasers in an interview also reveals an inability to take the perspective of the applicant by the interviewer.

Study co-author Dr. Scott Highhouse summarized the findings by saying: “(the) use of brainteasers in the hiring process provides little information about the suitability of the job applicant but considerable information about the callousness of the interviewer.”

What are these traits the study talks about?

Narcissism is a well-known trait characterized by unhealthy amounts of self-love, delusions of grandeur, and a lack of empathy. Sadism is the trait which leads a person to derive pleasure from causing another person pain.

These two traits are both parts of the “dark tetrad” model of applied psychology, a slight alteration on the “dark triad” model. Both seek to identify personality traits that are associated with malicious behavior, though the former adds sadism to the mix as studies demonstrate that sadism relates to a greater appetite for cruelty.

While two other traits are involved in these models, Machiavellianism and psychopathy to be precise, they are overlapping and a person who shows one is likely to show the others.

When a person exhibits these traits, like the people who think asking brain teasers during an interview is a good idea tend to, they are more likely to be willing to exploit other people, cause social issues, and harm the mental health of those around them.

What do people think they’re getting out of these questions in the first place?

Since major companies like Google, Microsoft and Xerox use brain teasers during interviews, there must be some use to them, right?

Dale Austin, the associate dean for the career development center at Michigan’s Hope College, explained in a Forbes interview that, “This kind of question is used to determine poise and the ability to think on one’s feet…to assess creativity and problem-solving.”

While this seems reasonable, these questions aren’t actually that good at doing that. Google discontinued the practice years ago. One of the more challenging problems they used to ask was this little gem:

Imagine that you are the captain of a pirate ship. You’ve captured some booty, and you need to divide it among your crew. But rest the crew will vote on your plan. If you have the support of fewer than half of them, you will die. How do you propose to divide the gold, so that you still have some for yourself—but live to tell the tale?[ii]

If you’re wondering what this question could have to do with working at a computer company, the answer is nothing. Laszlo Bock, the former VP of People Operations at Google, explained in an interview that these questions were discontinued because:

We found that brainteasers are a complete waste of time. How many golf balls can you fit into an airplane? How many gas stations in Manhattan? A complete waste of time. They don’t predict anything. They serve primarily to make the interviewer feel smart.

What questions should be asked in interviews then?

Bock and various studies agree that structured interviews that focus on behavioral questions and use a consistent rubric to compare candidates are much more effective than brain teasers. This seems rather obvious since asking people what they have done or what they would do in a hypothetical situation seems more relevant to the question of if they’ll be good at their job than how they answer a riddle.

Brain teasers are fun until you have to answer one for an interview. While they don’t tell the company very much about the applicant, they do tell you a great deal about the interviewer. Since most interviews are largely determined by first impressions anyway, your answers to brain teasers probably won’t make or break the interview anyway.

However, you might want to steer clear of the person who asks you “How many golf balls would fit into a Boeing 747?” if you end up getting the job they’re interviewing you for.



[i] Men tend to score higher than women on personality tests in the areas associated with the “Dark Triad.”  

[ii] The answer is to give it in equal shares to the top 51% of the crew. 

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