Puzzle questions test job applicants' mental reflexes during hiring process

Chris Wright, an assistant professor of psychology at SF State, has been researching how people react to being asked brain teasers during job interviews. Photo by Tearsa Joy Hammock / Xpress.

As a student coming out of the University of South Florida graduate school in the late 90s, Chris Wright was looking for a job.

On his search, he encountered an interview question designed to test his ability to think on his feet. Ten years later, Wright, now an assistant professor of psychology at SF State, has dedicated a study to gauge how people react to puzzle questions in an interview setting.

Wright, along with fellow colleagues Chris Sablynski, Todd Manson and SF State graduate student Steven Oshiro, recently had a study published in the “Journal of Applied Social Psychology.”

The practice of giving out puzzle questions — asking questions during job interviews to test applicants’ creativity, intelligence and tolerance of stress — is something that’s gone on in the software and finance industry for years.

These “brain teaser” questions are solvable, but have been under fire for being a poor way to find qualified applicants, according to Wright.

An example of this is a question Google once asked — “How many ping pong balls would fit in the Mediterranean Sea?”

Wright and his colleagues had 360 participants view video footage of mock job interviews where puzzle questions were asked.

“So many people come into job interviews, knowing exactly what to say. Puzzle questions are a novel way to show a person’s ability to think on their feet,” Wright said. “No (organization is) really looking for a right answer, because so many of these questions are really more geared toward gauging your thought process.”

According to the study, many of the subjects who viewed the mock job interviews were not amused by the use of puzzle questions. Many of the SF State undergraduate students primarily used in the study viewed the puzzle questions as unfair because of what the questions asked.

In the footage of the mock job interviews, people were asked questions such as “How would you weigh a jet plane without using scales?” or “If you could remove one of the 50 states, which one would you remove and why?”

Though students may have not thought that the questions were fair, many thought that interview subjects asked puzzle questions performed better than those asked traditional interview questions.

“Puzzle questions are typically used to gauge intelligence, but a better way to prove that is by an IQ test,” Wright said.

George Havdalas, manager of the Parkmerced U-haul location, doesn’t currently ask puzzle questions during job interviews.

“I would consider using puzzle questions on interviews to see if the person applying for the job can deal with stress,” Havdalas said. “People always come in stressed out from moving, and puzzle questions could be a determining factor to see if (the person applying for the job) can think on their feet when helping with customers.”

Melanie Guarino, a senior hospitaity and tourism management major at SF State, isn’t buying it. She doesn’t believe that the purpose of puzzle question is to see a person’s thought process.

“What are they trying to prove by doing that?” Guarino said. “I don’t really think it’s fair or makes sense to ask questions like that.”