In the 1930s, Hedwig von Restorff, a German psychologist, made an important, though not very counterintuitive, discovery: things that somehow stand out are remembered more easily than typical things.
Illustration by Nick Criscuolo
This post originally appeared onHarvard Business Review.
Suppose we read the following list to a group and then asked them to recall it:
apple, truck, necklace, tomato, glass, dog, rock, umbrella, butter, spoon, Lady Gaga, pillow, pencil, chocolate, desk, banana, bug, soup, milk, tie
One doesn't need to be a German psychologist to see that "Lady Gaga" will be more easily remembered than, say, "butter". In the context, "Lady Gaga" is atypical, and that's why she'd be remembered more easily. That's the von Restorff Effect in action.
Now think about a typical hiring process. A company makes an announcement for a position opening; many people apply; a subset of applicants get interviews; and after the interviews, a group within the company decides whom to hire. Anyone who's been involved in the hiring process knows that a lot of the discussion around hiring depends on what people "remember" about the interviewees. Of course, there are concrete things to consider (such as CVs, psychometric test scores), but people's recollections also play a big part:
"I remember that guy was quite arrogant."
"Actually, I thought he was extremely polite."
"Didn't he consistently interrupt you when you were asking him questions?"
"No, he had fantastic manners. He was the last in and last out of the elevator every time -- a true gentleman."
"OK -- maybe it was one of those other guys I had in mind. Did the elevator guy keep making weird jazz references?"
"Oh, I liked him. He was cool."
In a crowded field -- and it feels right now that most fields are crowded -- the most disadvantaged people to be in this situation are those "other guys", the ones who cannot be recalled vividly. After talking with many hundreds of MBA students searching for jobs, I've learned many things. One is that people (or at least MBAs) looking for jobs tend to become quite risk averse. When interviewing, they don't want to do anything "strange".
But if you take Frau von Restorff's findings on board I think you'll agree with me that the conservative folks are making a tactical mistake. Oscar Wilde, speaking through the character Lord Henry in The Picture of Dorian Grey, understood this: "It is silly of you, for there is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about."
In the pile your file is in, probably most people went to similar schools, have quite similar CVs, and so on. But what will make people remember and talk about you? How are you atypical? It's not that you have 10 rather than 12 years experience. It's not that you managed 32 rather than 16 people. How are you really atypical? How will you be remembered in that hiring meeting? Will you be remembered or just be one of those other guys?
Like Oscar, Lady Gaga gets this, and she's been hugely successful as a consequence. In The Fame she tells us: "I'm obsessively opposed to the typical." And of course "Lady Gaga" isn't a typical name. (Does anyone here remember that Stefani Germanotta?)
So when the files are discussed, how will you be separated from the other guys? Maybe it's because you cited Jay-Z rather than Warren Buffet (Jay's buddy, actually) as the reason you wanted to go into private equity. Maybe it's because you had a spider tattoo on your thumb. Maybe it's because you worked as a bartender in Cambodia for two years after college. Maybe it's just because you were you and didn't try to be the McHire-Me you thought they wanted.
Perhaps you can leverage the "Lady Gaga Effect": be opposed to the typical. Don't be afraid to be weird (you probably are) -- at least you'll be remembered. And you know the only thing worse than being remembered…
The Value of Being the "Weird" Job Candidate [Harvard Business Review]
Neil Bearden is an Associate Professor of Decision Science at INSEAD, where he teaches and researches judgment. Follow him on Twitter.