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How to Ace an Interview: Feel Powerful

Experiments show that simple psychological preparations make a big difference
interview handshake



iStock/Alexander Raths

In today's competitive job market, hopeful employees want to know what qualities lead one job candidate to prevail over dozens of other capable contenders. If we consider the recent appointment of Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio to the highest post in the Catholic Church, then humility, servility, and meekness may top the list. Numerous anecdotes about Pope Francis' unassuming nature have surfaced since his selection, including stories of him rejecting a chauffeur-driven car and images of him washing the feet of women. Perhaps the lesson here is that job seekers should reflect on their own relative insignificance, and strive to convey modesty, restraint, and vulnerability in the interview process.

This may be the right strategy — if you have a shot at the papacy. But if you are trying to secure a spot in the American business world, new research suggests that priming your powerful side is the way to go. A sense of power, it seems, increases your appeal both on paper and in person to those making hiring decisions.

It is already well established that people who feel empowered pay more attention to rewarding information, express themselves more freely when interacting with others, and experience more positive emotion. They also tend to be more persuasive, less susceptible to the influence of others, and more confident. Power breeds optimism, higher self-esteem, and action in pursuit of goals. By contrast, those lacking in perceived power experience a reduced sense of control and diminished access to resources or rewards, which in turn may lead to pessimism, depression, a withdrawal from activity, and poor health.

Joris Lammers and colleagues recently explored whether a sense of power, even if temporary, could improve success in the job interview process. In a series of studies, Lammers manipulated perceived power by asking participants to write about a prior personal experience in which they either had power (high power prime) or lacked power (low power prime). In one study, participants were primed for high or low power and then read a job ad for a sales analyst position. They were asked to assume that they possessed the necessary training and experience for the position, and to write an application letter. In a second study, participants were primed for high or low power, and then engaged in a 15 minute face-to-face mock interview for entrance into business school. This study also included a baseline group that received no prime manipulation before the interview.

In both studies, the candidates were evaluated by individuals who did not know about the power manipulation. In the first experiment, the raters had no interaction whatsoever with the participants, other than reading their applications. In that study, raters were significantly more inclined to offer the position to power-primed candidates than to those primed to feel powerless. In the second study, raters gave a yes or no judgment regarding acceptance of the candidates into business school, and also assessed how persuasive the candidates were during the interview. The high-power prime increased the likelihood of acceptance by 81 percent compared to the baseline (no prime) condition, and by 162 percent compared to the low-power prime condition. Not too surprisingly, high-power applicants were also perceived as more persuasive than either baseline or low-power applicants.

It may thus be wise to conjure a memory of a time when you were in charge and felt powerful as you prepare for your next interview. Indeed, it may even be tempting to engage in this type of exercise in a variety of arenas, for example, when buying a car or trying to talk your way out of a speeding ticket. Before you adopt personal power as your universal inner mantra, however, know that there are perils and pitfalls to power. As noted earlier, feelings of empowerment compel people to action. These actions may be socially altruistic, like donating to public radio, but they may also be self-serving, like turning off an annoying fan without permission, or even socially caustic, like consuming more than one's fair share of a common resource. Furthermore, feelings of power may make you less sensitive to the interests and positions of others, more likely to stereotype others, and less interested in seeking confirming evidence for your opinions or judgments.

In some cases, power can really go to your head. Empowered people are not only more confident that those with less power, they in fact exhibit hubristic overconfidence, both about events within their control and about events that are clearly outside their control. Individuals with a high sense of power, for example, are not only more likely to believe that their achievements will be celebrated by the press, they are also less likely to believe that they will experience turbulence on a plane or encounter a venomous snake. This overconfidence creates a sense of invulnerability, which in turn can result in a willingness to engage in risky behaviors, like having sex without a condom or taking bigger risks at the black jack table. In negotiations, this risk-tolerance leads empowered individuals to reveal more about their preferences and priorities, potentially leaving them vulnerable to their opponent's tactics.

Power as a pervasive personal philosophy clearly has its drawbacks. We have known this more than 100 years: Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  Research on interpersonal relations certainly seems to support this premise. However, a small dose of power, right before your next interview, may be just what the doctor ordered to improve your odds of landing the job.

Are you a scientist who specializes in neuroscience, cognitive science, or psychology? And have you read a recent peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about? Please send suggestions to Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist at the Boston Globe. He can be reached at garethideas AT gmail.com or Twitter @garethideas.

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