Leveraging Psychology to Nail the Job Interview

by: Sarah Donaldson


Job interviews, like other types of human interactions, are influenced by psychological factors. For example, every interviewer has biases that affect the way they interpret information from candidates, and every candidate has biases that affect the way they project information to others. By understanding the psychology behind making a first impression, candidates can apply some useful techniques to showcase their strengths and influence how they are perceived. 


Two key psychological concepts influence impression-management. First, the primacy effect refers to the tendency to over-value information we learn first, compared to information we receive later on. According to Dr. Nicolas Roulin, Associate Professor of Industrial/Organizational Psychology at Saint Mary’s University and author of The Psychology of Job Interviews, this means that the first impression truly matters. Dr. Roulin recommends showing up to the interview dressed for the job, smiling when introducing yourself, and projecting confidence. This will prime the interviewer to perceive you as someone who fits well into the job right from the start and may color how they judge your following interview responses.  


Second, the recency effect describes the tendency to better remember the most recent information – i.e., the end of the encounter – when making value judgements. Therefore, Dr. Roulin emphasizes the importance of wrapping up the interview by summarizing two or three key details that make you stand out for the role. This is also why sending a thank you note that reiterates your fit for the role tends to be a successful strategy. 


Another large body of psychological research finds that we tend to like people who are similar to us. This may seem rather obvious – however, it can help job candidates stand out by emphasizing similarities that they have with the interviewer or with the main decision-maker. According to Dr. Gwendolyn Seidman, Professor of Psychology at Albright College and regular contributor to Psychology Today, it is important to build bridges with the people we meet, on both emotional and professional levels. By highlighting perceived similarities with the interviewer, you can cultivate a more positive experience, which can leave the interviewer feeling more positive about your potential. 


Finally, a recent meta-analysis examined the power of nonverbal cues during job interviews. Analyzing over 70 years of psychological research, Dr. Michelle Martin-Raugh and team found that the judgments that interviewers tend to make based on nonverbal cues matter almost as much as their assessments of candidates’ verbal responses. According to this research, the nonverbal cues that demonstrate the strongest association with interview performance are professional appearance, eye contact, and facial expressions. Thus, throughout the interview it is best to maintain a professional demeanor by utilizing appropriate eye contact and facial expressions in order to convey confidence. 


Job interviews can be stressful interactions, and a certain amount of anxiety is to be expected. However, with an understanding of the psychology behind impression management  – particularly the underlying implicit biases we all share when evaluating others  – candidates can utilize subtle techniques that might tip the scales in their favor. 



Sarah Donaldson is a Project Manager at ECA Partners. She can be reached at [email protected]



Sarah Donaldson
Project Manager

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