This is the third in a series of posts (read the first and the second) that look at some key cognitive biases and examine how they impact us as we consider switching jobs, interviewing for a job, and choosing a new job. Cognitive biases are a huge (and growing) topic, and they’re a ubiquitous facet of human behavior. In case you’re not familiar, a cognitive bias is a “systematic pattern of deviation from rationality” in human judgment, where inferences we make aren’t well-formed.


TL;DR— If you want to be a better interviewee (or leader or influencer of any kind), learn to tell better stories by using or avoiding cognitive biases like hindsight bias, rosy recall, the illusion of control, and the curse of knowledge.

Stories are powerful and even potentially manipulative, but as long as you’re not lying or intentionally trying to deceive a prospective employer (which isn’t good for either party in the long run), it’s incredibly useful to understand how human brains work in order to advance your agenda.

 

The Narrative Fallacy (and How to Use It)

The narrative fallacy isn’t an “official” cognitive bias—for instance, it isn’t found in the enormous Wikipedia list of cognitive biases. Rather, it could be said to comprise multiple other cognitive biases. It was first described by Nassim Taleb in The Black Swan. He writes:

The narrative fallacy addresses our limited ability to look at sequences of facts without weaving an explanation into them, or, equivalently, forcing a logical link, an arrow of relationship upon them. Explanations bind facts together. They make them all the more easily remembered; they help them make more sense. Where this propensity can go wrong is when it increases our impression of understanding.

Put even more bluntly: narratives aren’t real. They’re mental creations—but useful ones. Learn to use narratives, and you’ll be better across the board at persuading others. Here are four cognitive biases that partially compose the narrative fallacy. If mastered, they will help you leverage the narrative fallacy for your own purposes.

 

Hindsight Bias

What it is: Hindsight bias is the grandaddy of the cognitive biases—see the linked article for a long and storied history of its description and study. Also known as the “I-knew-it-all-along effect,” hindsight bias is the inclination to see a past event as having been predictable—despite there having been no objective basis for predicting it. Tying events together in a narrative is a way of making them seem causal, predictable, and obvious.

What you should do: Make sure to present the past as understandable, as predictable; hindsight bias should help here. If you aren’t clear about aspects of your past—why a project succeeded, why a company failed—interviewers will not see you as insightful or intelligent. It’s okay to include a hedge like “this is just my perspective” or “based on what I know,” but make sure to have a story where the conclusion is self-evident given the premises.

 

Rosy Recall

What it is: The name “rosy recall” comes from the idiom about seeing things through “rose-colored glasses.” It turns out that subjects rate events less positively (or more critically) immediately after they occur, but more positively over time. In other words, our estimation of things tends to become rosier over time. Have you ever been sick during a big life event like a wedding or a vacation? Don’t worry, the bad aspects of that memory will fade over time, and eventually, the good stuff will be all that’s left.

What you should do: Lean into rosy recall. The negatives about your past jobs or your decision in them are for your therapist or coach, not for a hiring manager. Relentlessly focus on the positive (except for the behavioral question stories you’ve prepared about conflict, failure, etc.).

 

The Illusion of Control

What it is: The illusion of control is one of the positive illusions—our unrealistically favorable attitudes towards ourselves and those we like. Specifically, it’s a feeling of control over things we couldn’t possibly control. It’s been used as a partial explanation for compulsive gambling behavior and belief in superstitions and the paranormal. It’s often beneficial so long as our optimistic outlook doesn’t depart from the realm of the possible.

What you should do: Also lean into the illusion of control as you create narratives about your job experience—a job interview isn’t a time to skimp on assertions of your powers of execution. You might know rationally that there were a dozen factors outside your control while completing a project, but focus on the things you did control, even indirectly, will create a sense of competence and efficacy.

 

The Curse of Knowledge

What it is: The curse of knowledge occurs when someone mistakenly assumes that the person they’re communicating with has the background to understand them. This can happen in trivial circumstances—like when your team can’t figure out the thing you’re pantomiming while playing charades, even though it’s “so easy”—or more complex ones, such as when an expert has difficulty explaining something to a novice because it has been so long since they’ve been in their shoes. The amount of inferential distance between parties is often unknown and makes communication difficult.

What you should do: Avoid the curse of knowledge by practicing your stories and explanations with others, making sure to keep your delivery simple enough to be understood without clarifying questions. You’ll want to modulate based on your interviewer, but the key lesson here is to demonstrate your communication skills by making sure to provide appropriate context for your interviewer(s), instead of being oblivious to it. As a general rule in an interview, over-communicate.

 

There’s lots to be gained by knowing more about the human brain’s reliance on the narrative fallacy, and by practicing crafting your own narratives. If you want to talk to someone about optimizing your own stories for personal career growth, we have career coaching services in Seattle. If you’re considering tooling up for a new career area, talk to an enrollment coach about it!