Should Organizations Use Brain Teasers on Job Interviews?

Topic(s): interviewing, selection
Publication: Journal of Applied Social Psychology (2012)
Article: Why Are Manhole Covers Round? A Laboratory Study of Reactions to Puzzle Interviews 
Authors: C.W. Wright, C.J. Sablynski, T.M. Manson, S. Oshiro
Reviewed by: Thaddeus Rada

Despite controversy over their effectiveness, interviews remain a tool that many organizations rely on when making hiring decisions. There is a great deal of variability in the way that interviews are organized, and in the content that they assess. There is a familiar distinction between structured and unstructured interviews; however, one type of interview that is less well-known is the puzzle interview. Originally pioneered by Microsoft in the 1990s, puzzle interviews continue to be used in many well-known organizations, such as Google and Amazon.


What is a puzzle interview? Essentially, it is an interview consisting of unconventional questions that are designed to assess applicants’ creativity, problem-solving skills, and ability to handle unexpected circumstances.. This is because many job applicants may receive some coaching on how to perform well in an interview, but this training rarely includes coverage of puzzle interviews. An example of a question that might be asked during a puzzle interview is “How would you measure exactly 4 gallons of water using only a 3-gallon bottle and a 5-gallon bottle?”


Despite their popularity in some organizations, research on puzzle interviews is scarce. A recent study by (Wright et al., 2012) examined reactions to puzzle interviews, especially in terms of perceptions of fairness and effectiveness. The authors found that, among a sample of college students, reactions to the puzzle interview were quite poor when compared with reactions to a behavioral interview. As noted previously, research on puzzle interviews remains in its infancy, and more work remains to be done. However, at the present time, the authors conclude that organizations should use caution when using puzzle interviews; not only does their overall effectiveness remain unknown, but people appear to have rather negative reactions to them. Such reactions can contribute to a host of problems for organizations, and so it may be best for organizations to refrain from emphasizing puzzle interviews in their hiring process.