Research suggests a candidate’s position in the interview process can influence hiring managers’ evaluations. There are ways to avoid this bias.

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Could it be that the logistics of interviewing and evaluating job candidates in succession is resulting in biased hiring decisions? Research in behavioral science suggests that a candidate’s position in the interview process can influence hiring managers’ evaluations and decisions.

Serial position effects

Hiring managers typically screen or interview candidates individually in sequence and then make decisions after all candidates have been considered. As a result, selecting the “best candidate” often depends not only on the candidates’ actual merits but also on how decision-makers remember the candidates and reconstruct their evaluations.

An imperfect correlation exists between real-time judgments made during an interview and judgments made later, and this discrepancy tends to become more pronounced as time passes.

Researchers have demonstrated the existence of serial position effects, in which one’s position within an ordered list influences subsequent judgments and decisions. Specifically, options that are either first or last in a sequence tend to be recalled better and evaluated more favorably than other options.[1],[2] These advantages have been described as primacy effects and recency effects, respectively.

As an example, researchers examined the fates of 'American Idol' contestants as a function of their serial position of performing on the show ...”

As an example, researchers examined the fates of “American Idol” contestants as a function of their serial position of performing on the show, and found evidence of a primacy effect and an even stronger recency effect.[3]

Serial position effects may depend on the general quality of the applicant or interview pool. When options in a choice set (e.g., job candidates) are generally favorable, decision-makers exhibit a recency effect. On the other hand, when options in a choice set are generally unfavorable, the primacy effect prevails.[4]

For example, participants in one experiment either viewed three photos of attractive faces or three photos of unattractive faces. When the faces were generally attractive, the last photo received the best evaluations. However, when the faces were generally unattractive, the first photo received the highest average evaluation.

These studies suggest that unless the interview pool is generally weak, hiring managers may implicitly favor candidates who are interviewed last. However, other research has found just the opposite – that is, candidates who are interviewed later in the day may be disadvantaged compared to earlier interviewees. By the end of a full day of decision-making, hiring managers may experience decision fatigue, which can deteriorate decision quality and adversely impact the chances of later interviewees being hired.

A study of parole hearings in Israel found that even court judges suffered from decision fatigue – rulings that occurred later in the day tended to be much harsher.[5]

Additionally, hiring managers may engage in “narrow bracketing,” which is the tendency to have each day’s ratings balance out. What this means is that if an interviewer has already reached his average of three “excellent” ratings in a given day, a fourth excellent candidate is likely to be unfairly penalized.[6]

Debiasing for better hiring

For hiring managers, attracting and recruiting the best candidate from a strong pool is the holy grail of hiring. Unfortunately, serial position effects may compromise an organization’s ability to achieve this heady goal.

So what can be done?

First, schedule interviews and evaluations to control for serial position effects. For example, don’t schedule back-to-back interviews, and instead block off time for interviewers to provide detailed written evaluations of each candidate immediately after each interview. A staggered schedule in which interviewees rotate among multiple interviewers can safeguard against primacy or recency effects, as long as all interviewers have relatively equal input into the hiring decision.

And second, track changes implemented in the recruiting process, even seemingly minor ones, and monitor these changes over time. By doing this systematically, it can be determined which aspects of the recruiting process yield the best candidates and most effectively safeguard against serial position effects.

Mathew S. Isaac, Ph.D. Assistant Professor of Marketing, Seattle University Albers School of Business and Economics

The Seattle University Albers School of Business develops exceptional business leaders who are values-driven and committed to advancing the common good.


[1] Steiner, D. D., & Rain, J. S. (1989). Immediate and delayed primacy and recency effects in performance evaluation. Journal of Applied Psychology, 74(1), 136.

[2] Murdock Jr, B. B. (1962). The serial position effect of free recall. Journal of experimental psychology, 64(5), 482.

[3] Page, L., & Page, K. (2010). Last shall be first: A field study of biases in sequential performance evaluation on the Idol series. Journal of economic behavior & organization, 73(2), 186-198.

[4] Li, Y. E., & Epley, N. (2009). When the best appears to be saved for last: Serial position effects on choice. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 22(4), 378-389.

[5] Do you suffer from decision fatigue? (New York Times)

[6] Simonsohn, U., & Gino, F. (2013). Daily Horizons Evidence of Narrow Bracketing in Judgment From 10 Years of MBA Admissions Interviews. Psychological science, 24(2), 219-224.