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If you’re ever interviewing for a job with Tesla founder and world’s second-richest man Elon Musk, you can expect one question to crop up.
“Tell me about some of the most difficult problems you worked on and how you solved them.”
Musk loves this question as it highlights whether candidates are as good at their job as they say they are, he told the World Government Summit in 2017.
“The people who really solved the problem know exactly how they solved it,” he said.
“They know and can describe the little details.”
Ideally, he wants to know whether the interviewee played as big a role as they said they did in a project’s success.
“Usually, someone who really had to struggle with a problem, they really understand [the details], and they don’t forget.”
And according to a study published in the Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition in December 2020, Musk’s claim is backed up by science.
The study analysed whether different interview techniques could prompt innocent parties to highlight their innocence, or push guilty parties into increasingly weak lies.
As researcher on the study, Cody Porter from the University of Portsmouth, explained, the mental processes adopted by people telling the truth are markedly different to those telling a lie.
“By using specific techniques, these differences can be amplified and detected,” she said in a piece for The Conversation.
“Small details are the lifeblood of forensic investigations and can provide investigators with facts to check and witnesses to question. Importantly, longer, more detailed statements typically contain more clues to a deception than short statements.”
Under Musk’s technique, the Asymmetric Information Management (AIM) technique, interview participants are told that they need to provide long, detailed statements about the event or topic at hand.
“Research shows that when suspects are provided with these instructions, they behave differently depending on whether they are telling the truth or not. Truth-tellers typically seek to demonstrate their innocence and commonly provide more detailed information in response to such instructions,” Porter said.
“In contrast, liars wish to conceal their guilt. This means they are more likely to strategically withhold information.”
In this instance, the liars - understandably - believe that by providing less and more vague information, they will be less likely to be caught in a lie.
However, by doing so, they’re also inadvertently highlighting the flaws in their storytelling.
Other ways to spot liars in job interviews
Another way to spot a liar in a job interview is through consistency, president of ITM Group Inc. and founder of HR Bartender Sharlyn Lauby told Entrepreneur.
She suggests asking the same question a few times in different ways over the course of the interview process.
“For example, ask, ‘Are you able to work nights, weekends and holidays? If a candidate says ‘Yes!’ during the first interview but hesitates during another one, it’s a red flag that the company should try to get an honest answer.”
Additionally, body language like fidgeting can indicate an interviewee is uncomfortable answering a question. However, this can also just be nerves so it’s important to not place too much stock in that particular tell.
“[Nervousness] can also be a sign the interviewer isn’t doing a good job of making the candidate feel welcome,” Lauby said.
“Hiring managers need to learn how to make candidates feel at ease, so they are open [and honest] with their responses.”