science of us

Proof That Using Brain Teasers in a Job Interview Is Sadistic

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As if interviewing for a job weren’t torturous enough, employers at certain companies (among them, Xerox, Microsoft, and Zappos) have taken to asking applicants “brain teaser” questions, like “Estimate how many windows are in New York,” or “Why is a manhole round?” Such questions, in addition to being incredibly annoying and impossible to answer, don’t really teach employers anything about applicants, so why do some employers continue to use them in interviews? Basically, says a new study published in Applied Psychology, it’s because they are sadists.

For their study, researchers provided 736 participants with various job-interview questions (some traditional and some not), and asked them to rate their likelihood to ask each in an interview if they were in the position to hire someone. The same participants also answered a questionnaire meant to evaluate their own personality traits. Interestingly, researchers found that those subjects who said they’d consider using brain teaser questions when hiring someone were more narcissistic, more sadistic, and less socially competent than their peers. (Tell us how you really feel, researchers!) In other words, given what we know about how little a person’s answers to brain teaser questions tell us about them, it seems the only real motives for asking them are an enjoyment in watching someone else squirm, and a heightened sense of superiority.

As Laszlo Bock, the senior vice-president of people operations at Google — where brain-teaser questions are no longer used in job interviews — put it, “They don’t predict anything. They serve primarily to make the interviewer feel smart.” So there you go. If you ask a potential employee something stupid and virtually unanswerable like “How many golf balls would fit inside a 747?” in a job interview, all you’ll learn is that you’re kind of a bad person.

Using Brain Teasers in a Job Interview Is Literally Sadistic