While the field of psychology may not be everybody’s cup of tea — and some of the deeper stuff being done out there on the subject tends to get pretty dry and clinical — I recently stumbled across a fascinating list of over 100 psychological theories/principles here, compiled by the folks at changingminds.org. This site, if you’re not familiar with it, is dedicated to helping people “change what others think, feel, believe and do” and explores how to apply psychological principles in various settings to increase one’s communication skills and persuasiveness.
In reviewing this list, it got me thinking about how some of these phenomena might play a role in the job search process. And after scanning a number of the listed theories, it wasn’t hard to make the leap. Time and time again, I saw potential correlations that could be drawn between job hunting behaviors I frequently observe — on both sides of the hiring desk — and some of these proposed psychological principles. So with apologies to those of you not interested in such things, here’s a quick breakdown of 10 well-established psychology theories and my speculation as to how they might potentially play a role in the process of hunting for work today.
1) The Strength of Weak Ties: Studies have shown that useful help and referrals are statistically more likely to come from more distant or casual acquaintances (e.g. “weak ties”) as opposed to one’s close friends
My Observation: In general, most job hunters tend to assume that only their network of close friends and industry contacts can provide useful assistance in their job hunting efforts, versus casting their net wider to include more distant acquaintances. And yet, as discussed at length in the book “The Tipping Point” by Malcolm Gladwell, those professionals who expand their outreach to people they don’t know all that well frequently report such individuals provide even more useful assistance than their inner circle of supporters. The proposed reason for this counter-intuitive phenomenon? It’s that one’s close friends already tend to associate with each other, so offer redundant referrals to many of the same people, versus being able to help people tap into “fresh” networks of individuals they haven’t accessed yet. Additionally, it’s possible that the individuals who know you the best (friends, family) may often have a hard time seeing you in a professional light, or may be more attuned to your character flaws, leading them to be less comfortable sticking their neck out or referring you for a given job.
2) The Social Responsibility/Bystander Effect: The theory that in a crisis situation, the more bystanders are around, the less likely any of them will step up to help—unless the individual needing assistance initiates a “personal bond” with somebody
My Observation: One can go around discussing their job search far and wide, and delivering their elevator pitch, but will rarely generate referrals unless they specifically look somebody in the eye and ask them, directly, “hey, do you know anybody who might be good for me to talk to?” or “do you know somebody at XYZ company? Or in XYZ field?” Until you command someone’s direct attention and get them personally invested in helping you, by name, most people will tend to hide behind the crowd and not lift a finger. So simply implying that you need some help, indirectly, usually doesn’t net great results. It’s the exact same psychology that takes place in many public medical emergencies when people in a crowd suddenly freeze up, and don’t do anything, which is why first aid experts tell people to point to somebody in the crowd and forcefully say “you, go call 911!” to shock them out of the herd mentality.
3) Hindsight Bias: It can be embarrassing when things happen unexpectedly, so to cover up this embarrassment, we often view things which have already happened as being inevitable and predictable
My Observation: Routinely, I’ll see job hunters assume they’ve got a given job opportunity “in the bag” based on the match with their credentials—and then if they don’t get the offer for some reason, they’ll often immediately jump to the conclusion that it must be due to a factor they can’t control, such as age discrimination. While this can certainly be the case, at times, it discounts a TON of other possibilities that might have produced the exact same result—such as a failure on the job hunter’s part to prepare effectively for the interview, the existence of a better-qualified candidate, or a potential overestimation of one’s interviewing skills. Rather than trying to get to the true root cause of the rejection, many people will naturally and instinctively fall prey to the “hindsight effect” and unconsciously shift the blame to an external factor in order to protect their ego.
4) Goal-Setting Theory: If other people set goals for us without our involvement, we are much less likely to be motivated to work hard at the task than if we set or directed the initial goal, ourselves
My Observation: While many people are highly gung-ho about their job search when they’re making a voluntary career change, and have personally decided to seek out greener pastures, this enthusiasm tends to be in much shorter supply when one is forced into a job hunting situation through an involuntary event such as a termination or layoff. My contention is that because the goal in question (getting a new job) has been thrust upon them by an outside party, versus being something they decided upon themselves, it’s harder to stay focused and engage in the robust, methodical search regimen likely to produce the best results. It’s exactly the same reason that management gurus for over a century have stressed the importance of getting employees engaged in the work they do and giving them the freedom to exercise some degree of self-direction. Without the intrinsic motivation of setting your own goals, your performance will almost inevitably suffer.
5) The Ben Franklin Effect: The centuries-old observation that an individual who performs a favor for someone else is more likely to do another favor for that person than if they had received the favor, themselves
My Observation: This principle may be my all-time favorite, since it can help those people reluctant to network to recognize that most people actually LIKE to help others—and that you’re doing people a favor, in essence, by asking and allowing them to help you. A key part of this, of course, is knowing what kind of help you’re looking for and not acting entitled to peoples’ assistance. Want to reinforce this win/win psychological effect even further? After somebody helps you, and you’ve immediately shown your appreciation, wait a few weeks to follow up again to show continued gratitude and to reinforce that you applied their advice effectively — and got good results! Make this standard practice in your networking efforts and you’ll likely find that the people you come across will want to do you even more favors, down the road, due to the underlying reasons Mr. Franklin observed over 200 years ago!
6) Regret Theory: When faced with an important choice, people know they will regret making the wrong decision—and can experience severe stress and anticipatory regret even before the decision is made
My Observation: Oddly enough, I’ve had numerous clients report tremendous anxiety when facing what most people would say is a very positive situation, which is the need to decide between multiple job offers. Based on the psychology involved, though, this apparently shouldn’t surprise us. While it’s hard to beat yourself up mentally when you have a single pass/fail decision to make, it can be excruciating to have to choose between several potential options and worry that you might make the wrong choice. It’s basically a fancier name for buyer’s remorse, from what I can tell.
7) Scarcity Principle: The more scarce we perceive something to be, the more we are likely to desire it. What’s more, this desire increases further if it appears someone else might get it instead of us!
My Observation: While it takes little finesse, I’ve seen this principle applied to great effect in the job hunting process by certain people. Basically, you’ll find that mentioning the name of a company’s competitors (either in passing or as a place you’ve interviewed) will greatly increase their potential interest in you as a candidate. While it’s easy for many hiring managers today to view candidates as a “commodity” and take them for granted, you might see a whole different reaction the moment you stand up for yourself and/or they realize they might lose you to another firm in their space. Their perceived value of you automatically goes way up, once they see you as a “scarce” resource, not a desperate or widely-available commodity. See the article I wrote here for some further thoughts on this issue, if interested…
8) Planning Fallacy: When creating plans, we tend to underestimate how long things will take—often due to assumptions that no risks will occur or no unexpected changes/setbacks will take place.
My Observation: I mean, seriously, who isn’t guilty of this in many aspects of their lives? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought “this call will only take a minute” or “I can make that appointment time, no problem” based on a perfect-world scenario. And when it comes to job hunting, I find much of the same thinking, with people newly out of work often underestimating the time it will take to find a new opportunity because they’re failing to take into consideration various risks, events, and obstacles that can arise along the way—or assuming that their pending job search will take about the same amount of time as a former job search, years ago, when they were facing a different market and likely in a different age/income bracket. That’s planning fallacy at work and for many of us, cultivating an attitude of “cautious optimism” might be a better way to approach things.
9) The Endowed Progress Effect: When people feel they have made progress towards a goal then they will become more committed towards achieving the goal — and in reverse, when people feel they are making little or no progress, they will be far more likely to abandon their efforts
My Observation: While goal-setting is a key component of conquering most challenges in life, there’s one significant difference that’s not talked about enough when it comes to achieving career transition goals versus other life goals such as losing weight, working out, or remodeling one’s house. The difference is that with most normal projects and goal-pursuit efforts, you have the luxury of seeing incremental progress along the way that creates a “positive feedback loop” and reinforces your desire to work harder. When it comes to job searching, however, this isn’t usually the case. In job hunting, you can easily put forth a ton of effort within a given day, week, or month without any fresh leads or developments to show for it — and this lack of tangible, concrete reinforcement can muffle your drive to continue with the process. On the flip side, however? Those people who DO suddenly land a promising interview or experience a positive networking result (aka they see “endowed progress”) usually acquire an extra swing in their step—almost immediately—and dive back into the job hunting process with renewed vigor and optimism!
10) Happiness Thermostat / Set-Point Theory: A theory that people have a hard-wired ‘happiness’ level and that while it might rise or fall slightly based on external events, it remains generally constant throughout our lives
My Observation: While this is perhaps the most controversial theory on the list, I personally think it’s a very credible one. I say this because I routinely run across individuals going through some of the most awful events in life (both personally and professionally) who still manage to maintain a positive attitude, outlook, and sense of humor—and then I’ll come across people who have virtually everything going for them who seem chronically pessimistic, unhappy, and miserable. So others may disagree, but I tend to believe there’s some credence to this notion that each individual is largely pre-wired to hover at a certain satisfaction and happiness level in life, largely in spite of external events and circumstances. And the more one realizes where they tend to gravitate in this respect, the more they can potentially take steps to modify their attitude, when situations require.
So there you have it. My armchair thoughts on how some of these standard psychological theories funnel directly into the job hunting process. Not sure if I helped, hurt, or bored you — but thanks for reading! And again, to truly appreciate the scope of modern psychology and some of the research being done today, click on that link I supplied at the beginning of the article which goes into far more depth in terms of what social scientists have largely come to agree upon, today, in terms of how we’re all motivated and how we tend to (predictably) behave.