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The Science of ‘Bad’ Interview Questions – And How to Avoid Asking Them

The Science of ‘Bad’ Interview Questions…

… and how to avoid asking them.


We all know the ‘bad’ interview questions. We’ve heard them many times before and they make most recruiters and candidates groan – even if inaudibly. They’re typically a bit ‘quirky’ and designed to evaluate a candidate’s ‘outside the box’ thinking. Until now, the companies that asked these questions considered them to be effective and to give them an edge over their competitors.

Here’s a popular one: “How many golf balls can you fit into a bus?” – a question asked at many a job interview.

Questions such as these are obviously not about soliciting a right or wrong answer from the candidate. The number of golf balls that can fit into a bus depends on bus size, the type of bus, and what else is on the bus, to name just a few variables. This question is about tapping into one’s unique problem-solving approach and determining how creatively people can think, on the spot, to come up with an answer and talk through their rationale.

However, these types of questions fail to deliver in the end because most interviewers are not equipped with the psychological analysis skills to sift through the subtle nuances in a candidate’s answer. Or, even to understand the specific criteria for comparing one thinking style to another. For example…

…The highly creative ‘right brain’, narrative-driven response:

“The manufacturer confirms there is currently a worldwide shortage of golf balls, therefore none could be purchased, and the bus can fit zero golf balls, in this current manufacturing climate.”

 …Versus the highly logical, mathematically-driven ‘left brain’ response: 

 “Average bus size is 30 square metres, roughly half of this capacity is taken up by seats and other equipment leaving 15 square metres of free space. Average golf ball size is 4.06 centimetres, therefore the bus will roughly fit 69,000 golf balls.”

Luckily, the science is in so the debate over quirky interview questions can finally be put to rest! These types of questions have been shown to have zero relationship at all with a candidate’s job performance, so are actually irrelevant to finding the right person for the job.

It’s also been shown that these questions may be better suited to people who have a ‘gift for talking’, and do not reflect their actual ability to creatively problem-solve. Some people are great a job interviews, but not so great at the job.

Quirky questions often don’t make for a good candidate interview experience either. Because there is no face-validity, candidates don’t understand why the question is being asked or how it relates to the job. They are often left wondering how well they answered a question where it’s impossible to determine what the desirable response would look like.

Even structured, behavioural interview questions, posed by experienced recruiters, have only limited validity and power of predicting actual job performance. Recruiters are only human, and therefore deeply susceptible to unconscious bias and ‘gut-feel’ decision-making. Without a clear structure and assessment criteria, quirky questions are even more likely to result in poor decision-making and inaccurate candidate choices.

So how do you ask the right interview questions?

To maximise interview efficiency, it is best to utilise objective measures early in your recruitment process, such as cognitive or behavioural testing, and then formulate tailored interview questions for each candidate that can validate their specific strengths and development areas.

Contact us today to ask us about our customised interview guides, based on candidate’s specific cognitive or behavioural testing.