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In job interviews, what you drink may be seen as how you think

By Wallace Immen

During a job interview at a restaurant, the interviewer orders a glass of wine, so you order wine, too.

It may seem like a savvy move to follow the leader, but doing so may drown your chances of impressing a hiring manager – or a boss or customer for that matter, a new study suggests.

It’s not because you could get tipsy from a single glass of merlot; rather it’s what the researchers label the “imbibing idiot bias.”

“People think that drinking in moderation is safe because it will not impair their thinking. But they often don't realize that merely holding an alcoholic drink might make others view them as less intelligent,” said Scott Rick, assistant professor at the University of Michigan, who did the study along with Maurice Schweitzer, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School of Business.

In a series of experiments, the researchers found that 610 middle managers who read a résumé and viewed a photo of a hypothetical job applicant would be significantly less likely to hire if they were told the candidate ordered wine before dinner than if they were told the job-seeker ordered a soft drink.

The most scathing comments were about candidates the managers were told had ordered wine when the prospective boss ordered soda.

“There is an implicit association between alcohol and impaired thinking that we call the ‘imbibing idiot bias.’ It’s a connection that turns out to be appreciably stronger than most people are likely to expect,” said Prof. Rick, who will present the findings at the annual meeting of the Academy of Management in Montreal Aug. 7-10.

The bias is not the result of a general disapproval of drinking alcohol, the researchers found.

In another experiment in a campus pub, MBA students were invited to conduct one-on-one interviews in private booths with undergraduates who supposedly needed job-interview practice, but who were actually confederates in the research.

The interviewers were handed three questions to ask about the younger students' work background, the answers to which the undergraduates had committed to memory. The confederates drank either soda or a non-alcoholic beverage that looked like beer, taking a sip each time the interviewer asked a question but giving the same answers irrespective of what they were drinking.

Although most of the interviewers were drinking beer, they considered candidates to be significantly less worthy of being hired if they appeared to be drinking beer than if they were drinking soda – even though the answers were identical. Beverage choice had no effect on the interviewers’ ratings of candidates’ likeability, honesty or genuineness.

“The mildly intoxicated bosses were not evaluating candidates who drink alcohol negatively. Instead, alcohol consumption by candidates selectively influenced their perceived intelligence and hire-ability,” the researchers concluded.

“Taken together, the results suggest that what we drink may say more about us than we think.”

The “imbibing idiot” effect might have been less pronounced in the past, Prof. Rick suggested. But it has grown as advertising bans on alcoholic beverages, campaigns against impaired driving, and changes in legal drinking ages have created stronger negative associations with drinking.

The study’s results refute collective wisdom that you’re best off following the boss’s lead, they add. When asked their opinion, more than 75 per cent of MBA students surveyed said they would order a wine if a hiring manager ordered one, to follow the lead of a prospective boss.

In yet another experiment, the professors asked 176 adults who were randomly assigned to evaluate either six alcohol-related print ads or six print ads for various supermarket items. When that task was completed, participants were shown a photograph of a young man and asked to rate the subject, on a scale of one to seven, in terms of intelligence and likeability.

Participants consistently rated the photo subject as less intelligent (but not less likeable) after evaluating the alcohol ads than they did after assessing the neutral ads, with a less than five per cent likelihood that this difference was due to chance. In other words, “implicitly priming the concept of alcohol caused observers to view targets holding no beverage at all as less intelligent,” Prof. Rick said.
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