Thursday, 1 March 2012

How does clear specific feedback affect candidates who fail tests?

Online tests for recruitment are widely used, and routinely followed up by specific feedback to applicants, in order to communicate decisions, emphasise the pedigree of the process to forestall complaints, and to benefit the candidate. But does it deliver on all these fronts, particularly when candidates have failed to meet the required threshold?

Sonja Schinkel and colleagues explored this through two studies. The first asked 81 university students to put themselves into a hypothetical job application process and attempt two ability tests, drawn from a well-established measure of general mental ability. All participants were then told they were 'rejected' due to scoring worse than the top 20% of test-takers. They then answered questions about how fair they felt the outcome was, and provided a second set of well-being evaluations (the first taken before the test as a control variable for analyses). How did appearing to fail the test make them feel?

Participants were happier when they felt the outcome was ultimately fair... unless they possessed an 'optimistic attributional style', measured before the test with items like 'what do you think when bad things happen to you?'. Why was this? This style involves attributing negative events to external, impermanent factors, and that attitude can help you dismiss a disappointment as just bad luck. But this buffer to well-being is eroded if you accept that an outcome is fair, owing something to internal and more enduring factors.

A second experiment with 244 participants replicated this finding, and extended it by contrasting the non-specific test feedback (you didn't make the cut-off) with false, specific feedback (this is where you scored). Such specific feedback was worse for the well-being of all participants. Moreover, optimists in this condition didn't enjoy the well-being buffer when they judged the outcome was unfair. It's as if the specific feedback unavoidably presents a jarring internal attribution that can't be explained away.

Experiencing a negative event, such as rejection, is unwelcome. Being able to attribute the event to external causes can lighten its emotional impact, but these studies demonstrate how many of the features of ability test feedback – emphasising the fairness of outcome through reference to psychometric properties, specificity of feedback including ranges of performance – impose internal attributions, and lead well-being to suffer, at least in the short term. Whether the self-insight gained outweighs the self-efficacy lost is a calculation left to another day.

ResearchBlogging.orgSchinkel, S., van Dierendonck, D., van Vianen, A., & Ryan, A. (2011). Applicant Reactions to Rejection Journal of Personnel Psychology, 10 (4), 146-156 DOI: 10.1027/1866-5888/a000047

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