Recruiting, Talent

The Rise of Behavioral Science: What Does It Mean for Recruitment?

A decade ago, behavioral science was a niche field of study consigned to science journals and academic papers. Now, there are over 300 behavioral companies working with governments and industries across the globe. Even the proponents of the theory did not dare to imagine such an impactful ascendency.


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But very few of these companies are specifically focused on recruitment. Given that this practice reveals to us, in the words of behavioral scientist Richard Shotton, “how people actually behave, rather than how they claim to behave,” an inevitable change is imminent. The vast advantages offered to recruiters and businesses mean behavioral science methods will become integral to standard recruitment processes.

What Is Behavioral Science?

Essentially, it is a social science discipline with a significant distinction. Instead of simply observing what people do, it attempts to understand why they do what they do.

It does this by exploring how heuristics (choices that lead to a sufficient answer rather than the optimal, rational one) and biases influence our decision-making. In this sense, it draws from other fields of study, including neuroscience, psychology, biology, and even political science.

This means behavioral science can find patterns in the irrational decisions we make. In other words, it rationalizes our irrationality. When these patterns emerge, it provides an intriguing and insightful predictor of irrational choices—and, for that matter, rational ones.

And, when those patterns are aligned with the cultural and psychological makeup of an individual, we can begin to understand the motivations behind an individual choice.

This makes it a powerful tool for any organization that is interested and passionate about “people.” Therefore, we can expect the recruitment industry to accelerate its integration of behavioral science. The question for recruiters and C-suite individuals at present is: How much of our resources and time will be wasted on the wrong candidates?

How Is Behavioral Science Already Being Used?

A central text for behavioral science is Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s 2008 book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness. Before the publication of the book, this scientific discipline had meandered somewhat, but Thaler and Sunstein systemized it, applying their findings primarily to economic theory.

They argued that economic theory too often assumes that “each of us thinks and chooses unfailingly well.” Thaler and Sunstein demonstrate the misconceptions and biases that lead to the irrationality of our choices. The book had a tremendous impact on economic theory, with Thaler winning the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2017.

Contained within the book are recommendations for finance, health, the environment, schools, and even marriage. And, as if to underline the influence of the text, these are the precise fields in which newly founded behavioral science organizations have emerged.

In finance, we’ve seen behavioral science look at how psychological “nudges” can influence consumers to make a preferred choice. In health, it is being used to understand certain disorders and harmful behaviors, and in education, behavioral science attempts to lead students to capitalize on educational opportunities.

How Can Behavioral Science Improve Recruitment?

Within recruitment, behavioral science isn’t just testing candidates. It is eradicating the deficiencies contained within traditional hiring processes. For example, much of the evidence indicates that we are prone to employing people similar to ourselves, particularly in experience, presentation style, and even hobbies.

There is no rationality in this approach. It is an example of heuristics in action, leading to a potentially illogical and costly decision.

Recruitment typically relies on unstructured interviewing and CV analysis. Consider that hiring the wrong person can, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, cost at least 30% of an employee’s first-year earnings. Is it tenable that a critical business practice depends on such primitive processes?

An evidence-based approach is surely long overdue. Behavioral science provides us with exactly that. Rather than intuitively selecting a person you believe to fit into the culture of a company, at AssessFirst, for example, we use artificial intelligence (AI) technology to define that culture and characterize the specific role using nonstatic, live data.

By means of a sophisticated algorithm, candidates are invited to take a psychometric test as part of the wider recruitment process. This provides two significant advantages to our customers and partners: Biases the recruiter may unintentionally hold are removed, and employers can access data that shows them not just how candidates think and act but also why they think and act in that way.

Behavioral science has had—and is having—a significant impact on the way organizations of all shapes and types operate. For recruiters, a method that focuses on the behavior of staff, refines the hiring process, and links a candidate to company culture could have the biggest impact of all.

The solution is to adopt AI systems that future-proof recruitment strategies and practices. In a crucial business year, where companies are hoping to capitalize on the loosening of pandemic restrictions, the opportune time to incorporate these systems is now.

David BernardDavid Bernard is the CEO of AssessFirst. An occupational psychologist and a graduate of Université Paris 5—René Descartes, Bernard launched AssessFirst only 20 days after obtaining his master’s in Psychology. As CEO and chief creative officer of AssessFirst, he is in charge of branding and user experience. He also participates in executing various research projects conducted by AssessFirst, particularly in the field of group performance analysis. Bernard is also a renowned author and speaker. He has spoken at over 20 business schools and universities, including HEC, IESEG, ISG, and EM Strasbourg. He led two talks during the latest edition of “HR Speaks” on the subjects of “why some candidates succeed and others don’t” and “big data and models that predict professional success.” His latest book, 18 ways to get that job … without paying, f***ing, or killing, has been successful throughout Europe.