The stranger – unconscious biases

How do you make a judgement about someone you don’t know? Does it pay to meet them face to face first, or to review some other objective information first? What taints/ colours our approach to strangers?

In work and in life we often need to quickly understand those around us we don’t know. We need to sum them up quickly, and then this judgement will often guide our behaviour toward them. In evolutionary terms this has been a really important process for humans. Meeting an individual from a different clan/ region would require you to quickly evaluate if this is a friend or a foe. To make this snap judgement, we form a mental shortcut – a bias.

“To make (a) snap judgement, we form a mental shortcut – a bias. These shortcuts are commonly used in hiring, and we’re not usually aware of them.”

These shortcuts are commonly used in hiring, and we’re not usually aware of them. What we often want to do in recruitment is to form a sound and accurate judgement about our candidates quickly. From there we’ll be in a better position to decide if they are a good fit for the role.

I’ve been reading Malcolm Gladwell’s new book: ‘Talking to Strangers’,1 and it’s really struck a chord. Gladwell eloquently describes how we often misread people we don’t know. One of the key examples Gladwell uses to illustrate his argument, is the story of the meeting between British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, and Adolf Hitler in the 1930’s. Upon meeting Hitler, Chamberlain was charmed and quickly began negotiating with the Nazi leader. Despite being one of the few leaders that met Hitler, advice from those who had not met him focused on the evidence that the Nazi party were not to be trusted in negotiations. Chamberlain’s belief that he could successfully sum up Hitler led him to think he knew the German chancellor at a deep level.

His natural ‘default’ or bias towards truth led Chamberlain to believe Hitler’s assurances that he would not invade Poland. We all know what happened next.

Truth-Default Theory

It was likely that Chamberlain was impacted by a common bias we all experience – what esteemed psychologist Tim Levine describes in his ‘Truth Default Theory’.2 Levine’s theory suggests that most of us are hardwired to assume that people are being honest and accurate with us. This is a functional approach to adopt, as it means we can build relationships more easily. Trust is crucial when building effective teams, communities and organisations. If we were forever looking for lies or discrepancies, it would be very difficult to build successful and productive relationships.

“... humans are not great at detecting lies. We’re much better at detecting truth.”

One of the issues of meeting an individual face to face, say in an interview situation, is that humans are not great at detecting lies. We’re much better at detecting truth. We often accept on face value what a candidate tells us, and even when we are looking for discrepancies, we tend to be more effective at accurately appraising the truth than when someone is embellishing to make themselves look good. Candidates are motivated to present themselves in the most positive way possible, and they are often nervous or uncomfortable in an interview situation. It can be difficult in those situations to make an accurate judgement.

Luckily, it’s unlikely you will run into an Adolf Hitler when hiring! Although I have heard a few interesting stories from recruiters over the years…. But this poses the question – how do we effectively get to know our candidates, without biases clouding our judgement?

Reducing bias

There are a lot of different approaches to reduce unconscious bias. You can even review a couple of real-world examples described by Revelian clients offering their perspective on hiring for diversity and inclusion in our recent webinar. Interventions include specific training, blind recruitment techniques and using diverse selection panels to increase diversity of thought and understanding.

Awareness can also help us to focus our efforts. You can check out your own personal biases towards different groups by taking one of the Harvard University Implicit Association Tests – although beware – it can be confronting.

“Interventions include specific training, blind recruitment techniques and using diverse selection panels to increase diversity of thought and understanding.”

In terms of our truth bias, we are always keen to find out accurate information about candidates. Although self-report assessments can be extremely valuable, something like an ability-based measure of Cognitive Ability or Emotional Intelligence is extremely hard to fake. Game-based assessments such as Cognify or Emotify provide an even more comprehensive and less distortable picture of a candidate’s abilities.

There are a range of other biases to watch out for in recruitment. These might include affinity bias (preferring people who are similar to us) and the halo effect (having one positive aspect about an individual colour our perception of all of their characteristics). As an example, a professional services firm that works with Revelian wanted to increase the diversity of those they hired for professional roles. Much to their delight, they found that using psychometric assessments before meeting candidates improved the diversity of candidates in terms of indigenous individuals, those from lower socio-economic status backgrounds and those from different educational backgrounds. The end result was that the organisation interviewed a broader range of candidates who were different to the traditional mold. The major win is an increase in diversity of thought, creativity and broader representation of the community.

Finally, it’s important to remember that biases are all around us. Some researchers believe that it’s hard to separate our implicit associations from the norms and beliefs of our culture.3 A crucial next step, when hiring, is to collect objective information about your candidates – and to do it early. Prioritising objective data from comprehensive psychometric testing can improve diversity and inclusion rates and start to slowly shift our beliefs and expectations of those we don’t know so well.


1 Gladwell, M. (2019). Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About People We Don’t Know, Allen Lane.

2 Levine, T. R. (2014). Truth-Default Theory (TDT): A Theory of Human Deception and Deception Detection. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 33(4), 378-392.

3 Arkes, H. R., & Tetlock, P. E. (2004). Attributions of implicit prejudice, or” would Jesse Jackson ‘fail’ the Implicit Association Test?”. Psychological inquiry, 15(4), 257-278.

Revelian Craig Gillies

Craig Gillies | Senior Consulting Psychologist

Craig Gillies is a registered psychologist and he joined Revelian whilst completing a Masters of Organisational Psychology at Griffith University.

During his time at Revelian, Craig has been involved in a number of internal and external projects including an engagement survey, employee training, psychometric assessment, client and candidate support, and the construction and validation of a game-based assessment. Craig has also had experience in a variety of roles, including external consultancy (in government and corporate settings), smoking cessation counseling, and research work. His research interests include the role of positive psychology in the workplace (and in life in general), engagement and resilience at work. Craig is also passionate about employee/candidate wellbeing and is an advocate of Motivational Interviewing as a method of facilitating behaviour change.