9 Lessons Recruiters Can Learn from Daniel Kahneman

The recently deceased Daniel Kahneman taught us that our brains have two systems of thinking; system 1 and system 2. What use is this knowledge in the world of recruitment? Here are 9 lessons summarized.

Peter Boerman on April 23, 2024 Average reading time: 7 min
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9 Lessons Recruiters Can Learn from Daniel Kahneman

At the end of March, Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman passed away at the age of 90. His influence has been significant, especially due to his 2011 book, Thinking, Fast and Slow (Our Fallible Thinking), a classic in the field of human decision-making. In it, he demonstrated that people do not always make decisions as rationally as they often think they do. An insight that is also of great significance in the world of recruitment.

Kahneman explained that humans decide using two thinking systems.

Kahneman explained that humans decide using two thinking systems. One of the systems is fast (98% of our thinking), unconscious, efficient, confident, and prone to errors (system 1), while the other is slow (2% of our thinking), self-conscious, resource-consuming, full of doubt, and perhaps slightly less prone to errors (system 2). These systems coexist. System 1 reacts when we are late and tempts us to drive fast to make our appointment on time, while system 2 urges us to think about the dangers of speeding and the possible costs of doing so (such as a fine or accident).

6 dimensions

Kahneman’s influence on recruitment dates back to 1955, when, as a 21-year-old lieutenant in the Israeli army, he was tasked with setting up an interview system for the entire military. The existing system for assessing soldiers had proven ineffective, and Kahneman’s degree in psychology made him the most qualified person to take on this task (the state of Israel was only 7 years old). However, as Kahneman himself admitted: ‘From the perspective of a serious professional, I was no more qualified for the task than I was to build a bridge over the Amazon.’

As a 21-year-old, Kahneman was tasked with setting up an interview system for the entire Israeli military.

Nearly 50 years later, Kahneman described in his book the application of using System 2, instead of System 1, for making selection decisions: ‘If you seriously want to hire the best possible person for the job, this is what you need to do. First, select a number of traits that are essential for success in the role. Don’t overdo it—6 dimensions is a good number. The traits you choose should be as independent of each other as possible, and you should feel that you can reliably assess them by asking a few factual questions.’

From 1 to 5

‘Then, make a list of those questions for each trait and think about how you will score them, for example on a scale from 1 to 5. You should have an idea of what you will call ‘very weak’ or ‘very strong’. These preparations should take you about half an hour—a small investment that can make a significant difference in the quality of the people you hire.’

‘Resist the urge to change your final ranking.’

‘To avoid halo effects, you must collect information about one trait at a time and score each trait before moving to the next. Never skip this step. Add up the 6 scores to evaluate each candidate. Make the firm decision that you will hire the candidate with the highest final score, even if there is another candidate that you like better—try to resist the urge to change the ranking.’ What other lessons did Kahneman have in store for the recruiter? We list 9 of them…

1. Don’t look into the eyes

Kahneman instructed his colleagues in the Israeli army to focus on scoring each pre-named trait as accurately as possible and ‘leave the predictive value to me’. A large body of research offers, according to him, a promise: you are much more likely to find the best candidate if you use this procedure than if you do what people normally do in such situations, which is to enter an unprepared job interview and make choices based on a general intuitive judgment like: ‘I looked into his eyes and what I saw pleased me’.

2. Don’t think: do I like you?

From our lifelong conditioning, we quickly judge people we meet for the first time with system 1. ‘Do I like you?’, ‘Do I trust you?’ Unless we specify the most important selection criteria and ask questions that are relevant for an accurate assessment of those criteria, we mainly ask standard questions that help us assess the likeability or trustworthiness of the person. But we don’t interview candidates to become our friends or to decide whether we want a personal relationship with them; we interview them to assess whether they are suitable for a specific job.

We don’t interview candidates to become our friends or to decide whether we want a relationship with them.

There’s nothing wrong with hiring people you like, but if you hire someone primarily because you like them, and once in the role, it turns out that the person lacks the skills or motivation to perform the work to the required standard, you won’t like them for long. Daniel Kahneman therefore showed that you need to rein in this system 1 by deploying system 2 more. And to ensure that this has a chance of success, you need to devise a method that doesn’t tire system 2 too much. Structured, therefore.

3. Prepare

We mentioned it just now: for Kahneman, good preparation for a job interview is essential. If you don’t do this, and you don’t accurately identify what the main criteria are on which you will assess the various candidates in advance, then the selection is doomed to fail, and will be too much based on system 1, he says. ‘Avoid letting a candidate’s likeability take precedence over the criteria you have decided are most important for success in the job.’

4. Score the answers

According to Kahneman, a good selection process includes not asking opinion-based or theoretical questions, and being able to score a candidate’s answers. Furthermore, structure helps ensure that you can actually compare candidates on the relevant criteria, and thus eliminate as much as possible your unstructured ‘gut-feeling’ interview technique.

5. Step back more often

We live in a world that is fed by rapid information and quick decisions. Sensory overload strengthens the weaknesses of our System 1 and tempts us into automatic judgments and a lack of critical thinking. Thinking, Fast and Slow is an antidote. Studying your own biases helps to take a step back more often, question your automatic reactions, and thus make better choices.

6. Play on loss aversion

A bias or prejudice can be seen as a shortcut: your thinking system uses it to prioritize and process information quickly. Kahneman describes many of these cognitive errors in his book. One of the most important among them is loss aversion, or loss aversion. According to Kahneman, people feel the pain of loss much stronger than the satisfaction of gaining or winning. People are subconsciously 2.5 times as strongly motivated to prevent possible loss than to achieve gain.

As a recruiter, you can benefit from this by, for example, creating a sense of urgency in a candidate. Let your candidate know that he or she fits well with the role and that there are certainly opportunities, but that you have another matching profile. The fear that this option will be lost can prompt them to take action.

7. Use the peak-end rule

Have you ever wondered why IKEA offers you dirt-cheap but tasty ice creams and hotdogs after checkout? Exactly: to give you a positive end experience. Otherwise, it would be ‘searching for items in a dismal warehouse’ – and paying an amount that is always higher than you expected. With the ice cream at the end, IKEA turns your ‘end’ from a 5 to an 8. Did you know that candidates do exactly the same when they look back on your recruitment process?

Not your entire process needs to be a 9 or 10, as long as one thing (positive) stands out, and the end leaves a good impression.

This is also known as Kahneman’s so-called peak-end rule. It essentially states that you need to have both a peak and a good end in a particular experience to leave a good satisfaction. This means that not your entire recruitment process needs to be a 9 or 10, as long as there is one thing that stands out (positively), and the end leaves a good impression. Then the overall judgment by the candidate is probably still positive.

Operation of peak-end rule ( Kahneman , 2000) in a positively perceived application process.

8. Be aware of the anchor bias

We tend to become overly fixated on the first piece of information that is offered to us (the ‘anchor’). This so-called anchoring bias can be used during salary negotiations, for example, to give candidates an idea of where you are aiming.

9. Understand the effects of framing

Framing is also a phenomenon that Kahneman described in detail. Suppose you have a drug. You give it to 100 patients. You hear that 70 patients improved from it.

How would you assess the effect of the drug? And suppose, you hear of the same drug for 100 patients that 30 patients did not improve from it. How would you assess the effect of the drug then?


And there are many more beautiful ‘cognitive errors’ that Kahneman described in his book and his earlier works. From the availability and representativeness heuristics to the focusing illusion and the optimism bias. Too many to mention here really. But hopefully, enough peak-end to get you further into it. So that we can all make better selection decisions in the future. After all, it really is about something…”



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Peter Boerman

Peter Boerman

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