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Brain Teaser Questions Don’t Tell You Much About A Job Candidate

By Gerald Walsh ©

As if interviews weren’t stressful enough, some interviewers like to throw in a few brain teaser questions to see how job candidates respond to an unexpected query.

Most of these questions are quite stupid (in my opinion). Take this one, for example: “If you were an animal, what animal would you be?”

It seems that if you answer tiger, lion, cougar, or another strong animal, you have the necessary aggressive tendencies to propel you to the corner office in no time flat.

On the other hand, if you say lamb, cat, rabbit, or anything cuddly, you are destined for more passive jobs, such as an accountant or human resource professional.

Heaven help you if you say you would like to be a reptile.

Other questions are slightly more sensible. For example, “How many tennis balls would it take to fill an airplane?” is (supposedly) designed to test your estimation skills. Often the interviewer asking the question doesn’t even know the correct answer. They are only concerned with how you would approach the problem.

Other questions I’ve heard include:

Describe the colour yellow to a blind person.

Tell me the last two books you read and why you selected those ones?

Why is a tennis ball fuzzy?

If you invited me over to your house for dinner, what meal would you make?

If you could trade places with any living person, who would that be and why?

If you won $10 million in the lottery, what would you do with the money?

If you are asked one of these brain teaser questions, you should pause and think carefully about what the interviewer is looking for. Are they trying to test your analytical or problem-solving skills? Are they looking to measure your creativity? Are they trying to learn more about your outside interests?

Or, do they have other motives?

Many human resource professionals frown upon the use of brain teaser questions. I would fall into that camp.

Interestingly, a recent study published in Applied Psychology found that interviewers who said they would use brain teaser questions in an interview were more likely to be “narcissistic, sadistic, socially inept, and callous.”

The authors suggest that interviewers who use this approach do it to exploit other people, cause unnecessary stress and anxiety in the candidate, and generally have fun at the candidate’s expense.

Not very attractive traits in a possible future boss.

The study also found that these interviewers are more likely to believe in the use of intuition (otherwise known as ‘gut feeling’) in their assessment of candidates.

This introduces a high risk of error. Although intuition does play a minor role in candidate selection, by itself, it is not a reliable predictor of a candidate’s suitability because of biases the interviewer may have.

Brain teaser questions had been used famously by well-known companies such as Google, Microsoft and Xerox.  But many have stopped using them.  According to a former human resources VP at Google, brain teaser questions say nothing about how well a candidate will perform on the job and only serve to make the interviewer feel smart.

So what should you do if you are asked a brain teaser question?  I see two possible options.

The first is “don’t sweat it.” If the company has generally followed a standardized interviewing process by asking a good mix of job-related questions, including behavioural ones, and then thrown in a brain teaser question near the end, in all likelihood, they will base their decision on your answers to the job-related questions. In other words, how you handled the brain teaser probably won’t matter.

However, if the interviewer was unprepared and seemed to enjoy asking a range of brain teaser questions, you should seriously consider if this is the type of boss (and type of company) you would want to work for. You may be seeing examples of narcissistic and insensitive behaviour that will make your employment with that company quite uncomfortable.

To share your thoughts on this blog post, please write me at walsh@geraldwalsh.com


Gerald Walsh is an executive recruiter, career coach, public speaker and author. He is the author of “PINNACLE: How to Land the Right Job and Find Fulfillment in Your Career. You can follow Gerry on Twitter @Gerald_Walsh