We like to think that we are experts at sizing people up. On the basis of brief encounters we size people up.
But at least in the cases were people know they are being assessed, and thus can put on their social face, the numbers don't look real good.
Oliver Burkeman, The Guardian, 17 January 2014 (hat tip: MR)
"We have a deep-seated need to feel that we can judge character," Jason Dana, of Yale University, told the Boston Globe recently. But many studies suggest we can't – and a new paper co-authored by Dana is especially damning. He looked at "unstructured interviews", the free-wheeling kind of interview that's usually crucial to getting a job. Participants were asked to predict the academic performance of two college students: in one case, they were given data on the student's past achievements, age etc; in the other, they got the data, plus a chance to interview the student. Consistently, interviewing led to less accurate predictions. The students who looked best "on paper" really were. Of course, you might have other reasons for wanting to see how someone handles themselves in conversation, but for forecasting performance, gut feel got in the way.
Technically, the problem with unstructured interviews (or dates) isn't that they're insufficiently informative. It's that they're too informative. Bombarded by data, we seek refuge in "sensemaking", clinging to stories that seem to render things clear. But those stories might include racist or sexist stereotypes about who's good at what. Or they might be the seductive stories of candidates skilled at interviews, yet rubbish at the job itself. "Because of sensemaking," the researchers write, "interviewers are likely to feel they are getting useful information from unstructured interviews, even when they are useless." Settling on a coherent story feels good, but that doesn't mean it's accurate.
The one question that they note a correlation, "Do you like beer?" to first date sex, reminds me of the statistic that one of the best predictors of early sex by woman is that they smoke cigarettes. One doesn't exactly lead to the other, but certain groupings of non-random behavior, overwhelm the random portions.