Hiring Manager, How Well Do You Trust Job Applicants?

Logic says that it would be very useful for recruiters to know when they are being deceived by job applicants and when they are telling the truth. You would think that since the industrial revolution era, management best practices should have provided hiring managers with the ability to pick up the subtle signs of deception. But it hasn’t. Essentially, when recruiters interview job candidates, they are talking to strangers. Hence, they are trying to gauge the veracity of what they say. Sometimes they trust the candidates and sometimes they don’t. To understand this better, let us examine the dynamics that happen in the interview room based on the in-depth studies and research done by Tim Levine.

Truth default theory

Tim Levine
Tim Levine

We tend to trust a stranger way more than we distrust them. A famous empirical psychologist named Tim Levine has thought much about the problem of why we are deceived by strangers. Baffled by why we are all so bad at something that we should be good at, Levine has done thorough researches on this matter. His answer is called the “Truth-Default Theory” or TDT. The big insight from these studies was that 54% deception-accuracy figure was averaging across truths and lies. What he meant was this. If someone tells you that your accuracy rate is around 50%, the natural assumption is that you are randomly guessing. But that’s not true. We are much better than chance at correctly identifying those who tell the truth. But we are much worse than chance at correctly identifying those who are lying. We have a default to the truth. Our operating assumption is that the people we are dealing with are honest. The truth-default theory operates from the assumption that everyone is telling us the truth and we go about working around that assumption. In other words, we take people at face value.



Tim Levine: Truth-default theory
Tim Levine: Truth-default theory

To get out of truth-default approach requires what Tim Levine calls a “trigger”. A trigger is not the same as a suspicion or the first sliver of doubt. And even if we have any suspicions, they are not enough to trigger us out of truth-default. In other words, although we need a trigger to snap out of the default to the truth, the threshold for triggers is high. That’s why we are terrible at detecting lies in real life and that’s why recruiters believe what the job candidates say. You see, belief is not the absence of doubt. We believe someone not because we have no doubts about them. We believe because we just don’t have enough doubts about them.

‘Some’ doubts and ‘enough’ doubts

Tim Levine here makes a crucial distinction between ‘some’ doubts and ‘enough’ doubts. He argues that we keep believing a person despite seeing some red flags because those red flags are not enough to push us over the threshold of belief. That’s the key to all of this. The threshold of belief. It means that until and unless the triggers reach a certain threshold we remain at a truth-default mode. We fall out of this mode only when the case against our initial assumption becomes definitive and overwhelming. We do not gather evidence of the truth or falsity of something before concluding. On the other hand, we do the opposite. We start by believing. And we stop believing only when our misgivings rise to the point where we can no longer explain them away. Doubts trigger disbelief only when we can’t explain them away i.e. when it reaches the threshold. This profound point explains why recruiters believe what the candidates say in a job interview.

In real life  

Tim Levine argues that defaulting to truth is not a crime. It is a fundamental human tendency. In general, every human being is equipped with the same set of biases to the truth as everyone else. We default to the truth because that’s our operating system. The simple truth is, by defaulting to the truth, we are only being human. Without starting from a state of trust, we cannot have meaningful relationships or social encounters. Tim Levine reminds us that under the circumstances, defaulting to truth makes perfect sense because, throughout evolution, human beings never developed sophisticated and accurate skills to detect deception as it was happening as there is no advantage to spending your time scrutinizing the words and behaviors around you. In real life, accumulating enough evidence to overwhelm our doubts takes due diligence, which takes time. Consequently, because we trust implicitly, spies go undetected, criminals roam free and lives are damaged. But Levine’s point is that the price of giving up on that strategy is much higher because the air around us would be very thick with suspicion and paranoia. That is the consequence of not defaulting to the truth. We default to the truth even when that decision carries terrible risks because we have no choice. Society cannot function otherwise. And in those rare instances where trust ends in betrayal, those victimized by default to truth deserve our sympathy and not our censure.

Back to work

Hiring managers, listen up! You’re doing a perfect job by going by your instincts and trusting your gut feelings when trying to estimate the accuracy of the job candidate’s answers. You are being human by defaulting to the truth. However, it can get better and better through experience. Therefore, when one says that he or she is an experienced human resources manager what that means is that, that person is much better than some of his or her other counterparts in hiring the right person for the right job. Tim Levine would agree with you.

Disclaimer: This blog post is adapted from the book “Talking to Strangers” by Malcolm Gladwell published by Little, Brown and Company in 2019. Malcolm Gladwell rose to prominence when he published his ground-breaking book called “Outliers” in 2008. He is also the author of many other bestsellers such as Tipping Point and Blink. Gladwell, born in 1963, is a Canadian journalist, a public speaker and a staff writer for the New Yorker since 1996. In 2005, Time magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people. And in 2011 he was awarded the ‘Order of Canada’, the 2nd highest honour for merit in the system of orders, decorations and medals of Canada. Malcom Gladwell currently runs a podcast called Revisionist History.

Photo by Dylan Gillis on Unsplash