(Psychology Today) What to Expect When a Callous Narcissist Asks You Questions
Susan Krauss Whitbourne Ph.D. Posted Oct 23, 2018
New research shows how callously narcissistic interviewers try to throw you off.
How would you answer this question: “Why are manhole covers round?” It might be fun to ponder this on your own time, but what if you had to provide an answer in a high-stress interview for a job or for school admission? After your mind enters a brief blank state, you grasp for ideas, all the while wondering what this question has to do with your qualifications. Perhaps you studied for the interview by going over your application or resume, but you never thought to look into the manhole cover situation. At the same time, might you wonder why this interviewer is using the precious time available for you to make your case with this irrelevant and annoying distraction? As it turns out, there may be systematic differences among people’s personality that lead them to inflict this particular mental duress onto their unfortunate applicants.
Indeed, the issue of college admission interviews has recently received national attention with the lawsuit involving Harvard University and Students for Fair Admissions. Claims by Asian-American applicants assert that Harvard admissions interviewers use a “holistic” rating system that incorporates biased appraisals. As reported in the Boston Globe, the university’s rating system and its inclusion of a personal score, which measures everything from applicants’ grit and ‘effervescence’ to their blandness and immaturity, disadvantages Asian-American applicants, the group alleges. Indeed, for over 20 years of record-keeping, there is evidence that Harvard admits Asian-American students at lower rates than it offers entry to whites, blacks, and Hispanics. Furthermore, Harvard further tips the scales, as is becoming clear, in favor of “legacy” students whose parents and grandparents attended Harvard, particularly if those earlier generations are generous donors. The cycle of unfair admissions, therefore, becomes perpetuated.
This case has opened a can of worms regarding the potential bias among college admissions counselors, but also is revealing just what you could expect to be asked if you’re the one sitting across the desk from an interviewer who will inform the ultimate decision about whether you’re in or out. Some of these secrets were revealed in a 2016 Business Insider story, by a former Harvard admissions counselor who shared the five questions she asked almost every applicant. She didn’t specifically ask about “grit” or bubbliness of personality, but presumably these qualities were fed into the global rating system, eventually resulting in a thumbs-up or thumbs-down decision. Four of the questions are pretty reasonable, such as “What are you interested in potentially studying in college?”, “What do you do when you’re not in school?”, “What have you read recently?” and “What’s the last cultural event you went to?” We don’t know how the answers are rated exactly, but they seem to be expected, given the context. Any reasonable person would prepare to answer such questions (even if the responses may be rated in a biased manner). However, the fifth question is the one that could throw a nervous applicant way off: “What’s the most negative experience you ever had in school?” The criteria for assessing answers to this question include whether the student could bounce back from a challenge, be able to handle rejection, and immediately get back in the game. The main point was to give applicants a question they wouldn’t expect just to see what they would do with it.
Now we know that there’s at least one question included in the interview to take the student off guard. As the manhole cover question shows, if you’ve ever been interviewed by someone who includes questions that seem irrelevant to the admission or job position you’re seeking, you can relate to the feeling of being completely stumped. Having served as the nationally competitive scholarship advisor at UMass Amherst for almost 20 years, I heard plenty of sad stories related to me by students who were interviewed, for example, for the Rhodes Scholarship by a committee made up either entirely or almost entirely by Harvard alums or current faculty. A number of the questions the committee members asked the would-be Rhodes Scholars seemed to come out of left field, such as “Why should Massachusetts fund public higher education?” This was not, in fact, a rhetorical question, as it implied that Massachusetts should not. In some cases, the questions would contain direct criticisms of a student’s university, suggesting that the students at the flagship campus in the UMass system were inferior for not attending an Ivy League school (I also heard this question was asked of a student at a small elite liberal arts college). I’ve been told as well, from multiple sources, that panelists who are part of a committee will also engage in outwardly rude behavior such as pretending to fall asleep during a 20-minute group interview, leading the applicants to feel distracted and dismayed about their performance. There are countless reports by student interviewees online that contain more details about the implicit or explicit bias in questions that the Rhodes interview committees commonly present to students.
Highhouse et al. believe that the interviewers most likely to engage in this questionable approach are high in the “dark motives” of narcissism, sadism, or both, that lead them to choose “insensitive and potentially offensive hiring procedures” (p. 3). Interviewers, they note, “are in the position of a game show host in that they often know, in advance, the answers to the questions they are asking.” As a result, narcissistic interviewers are able to “to show others how smart they are” (p. 5). The sadism piece is reflected in their “callous indifference” to the anxiety they are producing in their would-be students or job-holders.
To compare narcissism and sadism as motivators for this rude and self-centered interviewer behavior, Highhouse and his colleagues conducted a series of online studies allowing them to compare general personality factors of narcissism and sadism on the use of brainteaser questions including “tell me about a time that you failed” (much like the Harvard interview). In the second study, working adults who had engaged in hiring decisions completed questionnaires (over a one-year period) to investigate not only which personality traits predicted the use of brainteasers, but also what participants believed to be the (a) abusiveness and (b) usefulness of these questions as part of the application process. This second set of findings provided insight into the thought processes of abusive interviewers, revealing that on their own, narcissism and sadism didn’t completely predict ratings of interview question appropriateness, but that a general “callousness” factor involving both of these qualities did play a role. People high in this quality thought brainteaser questions were indeed helpful in sorting out applicants. However, if they were able to take the perspective of the interviewee (which was unlikely if they were sadistic), they could see the abusive downside in putting interviewees off guard.
As the authors concluded, “After accounting for sadistic impulses, those scoring high on the general factor [callousness and narcissism] may have the ability to understand how another person feels about receiving brainteaser questions but may not care about his or her negative reactions if these questions are viewed as useful in some way” (p. 21). In other words, the ends justify the means in true Machiavellian fashion.
Where does this leave you, the person facing a callous and narcissistic interviewer? Unfortunately, this person will not see the oddball questions as offensive or mean, but will use them to reinforce his or her own power advantage over you. It will hurt to come out of this situation feeling that you’ve failed miserably, and you’ll second-guess every answer you gave if the outcome is a negative one. Perhaps the best recourse is to write down everything that happened in the interview immediately after it’s over (advice I give my own students) and then seek solace from those who care about you and who undoubtedly will support you.
On the flip side, if you get the position, use the experience to try to change the culture of the interview process for those whose lives depend on your decisions. You’ll be less likely to ask “How many cows are in Canada?” (another well-known brainteaser question) and more likely to try to pull out your applicant’s strengths. Fair outcomes are what every applicant has the right to expect, and you can help contribute to those in your organization by standing up for fair questions.