The Lazy Human Brain

Integral talent management decisions have historically been based off assumptions. A gut-feeling telling us that this person is right, will be a good fit, and will thrive in our organisation. But without proof, ask Nicole Drakopoulou, Talent Management Consultant here at Chemistry, how can we be sure?


The human body, being the efficient machine that it is, does all that it can to ensure we are using the most minimal amount of energy at all times. The aim of this efficiency is to free up space for our brains to engage in more complex decision-making processes. Even better, as we’ve evolved, we’ve become so accustomed to using these mental shortcuts that we often don’t even realise they’re occurring. However, the fact that a machine is achieving maximum productivity with minimal wasted energy does not mean it will necessarily provide quality output. Put simply, our brains are now hardwired to make consistent and systematic mistakes.

Consider some of the following scenarios illustrating common instances of said errors:

  • Were you ever certain that you left your keys in a certain place…only to search that place and discover that they are not in fact there? (False Memory)
  • Have you ever assumed a physically attractive person will also probably be quite intelligent, capable or exceptionally kind, without having interacted with them to the extent that you can accurately make these judgements? (Halo Effect)
  • Isn’t it comforting to believe that after a series of losses, a win should be on the cards? (Gambler’s Fallacy)
  • Ever felt like you were having the worst day ever, even though only a couple of things went wrong through the duration of it? (Confirmation Bias)
  • Surely it’s correct to assume that if someone has gone to a top-tier university and wears well-tailored suits, they will be successful in all other walks of life? (Illusory Correlations)
  • Isn’t yogurt that markets itself as being 75% fat free more appealing than yogurt that markets itself as having 25% fat? (Framing Effects)

I’m sure many of the above sound quite familiar – and they represent only a fraction of the tricks our brains play on us in name of efficiency (or laziness, depending on how you prefer to look at it).

As previously mentioned, our mental shortcuts will often contribute to particularly low-quality outcomes. One such outcome is an inflated overconfidence in our personal beliefs, regardless of what is represented in reality. To add insult to injury, our brains are programed to process information in a way that maintains or strengthens these existing beliefs. This tendency is so strong we often disregard contradictory evidence even when it is staring us right in the face. Essentially, instead of objectively trying to gather and search through all the available information to come to a fair conclusion, we are far more likely to interpret information and ask questions which act to affirm our beliefs (and I’ll remind you here that we do this unconsciously).

Is it starting to become clear why the use of mental shortcuts can be dangerous in a business context, and more importantly in the context of hiring decisions?

Take, for example, the results of research which showed that hiring managers were twice as likely to hire a man over a woman to perform jobs involving arithmetic tasks, despite the fact that both candidates performed equally as well on the task. Another study found that applicants with an accent who had ethnic sounding names were viewed less positively by interviewers than ethnic-sounding-named applicants without an accent. In an era obsessed with data, the fact that we continue to fall victim to the perils of the mental shortcuts we know to be fallible is actually absurd. It begs the question: What do we need to be doing more or less of to level the playing field and make decisions based on rigour, science, objectively gathered information?

Imagine a world where we could use our deep and developing knowledge of psychology to make data-driven decisions about the places we work at, the schools we go to, and the people we hire. Consider the strength of a tool that has been programmed and designed by experts who can mitigate and apprehend the biases we all carry with us. Imagine if that data considered not only your past experience, but also your personality, the values you hold and what motivates you. Consider, too, how much easier (and bias-free!) it would be if this profile existed not only for you, but for the organisations you were interested in. Picture a world where you knew you were getting a job, or an interview, because there was objective data informing that you’re a good fit for the job and the organisation, both in terms of experience, but also in terms of your personality and other particular individual differences…

Maybe I’m falling victim to yet another mental shortcut, but to me that sounds like nirvana.

Photo by William Stitt on Unsplash

Aug, 25, 2017