Self-assessments in Hiring & Why They Simply Don’t Work

Jiaying Law

People Scientist

Self-assessments, which rely solely on subjective opinions, are widely used in hiring processes. Some examples you might be familiar with are self-report personality questionnaires, such as The Myers–Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) and The Predictive Index, as well as a self-evaluated performance within an interview process. 

Imagine a situation where you are answering an interview question from a potential future employer:

“How would you rate your performance in the previous company? ” 

How would you respond to the question? Most people would choose an answer that’s somewhere between average or above average, since probably no one will say: ”I performed really bad before”. Right? 

Why is that even happening? In this blog, we will discuss several topics regarding: 

  • The problem with self-assessments – differences in scores
  • What makes these differences exist?
  • The psychological mechanisms behind unintentional self-presentation. 
Don’t have time to read the whole blog but want to know the main reasons why self-assessments shouldn’t be used in a hiring setting?

What’s wrong with self-assessments in hiring?

Since we have been spending the most time with ourselves, we probably are the ones who know ourselves the best. What could possibly go wrong when we evaluate ourselves?

The truth is: we might be more accurate when being asked to predict others’ behaviour compared to predicting our own (e.g., Epley & Dunning, 2000). 

Here are four reasons why!

Differences in low-stakes and high-stakes situations

The situations we are in determine how we would respond to the same set of questions. A simple example is that you probably will get a different result in the MBTI test depending on whether you did it for fun or you did it for a job application. That is, test scores are generally higher in high-stake situations compared to low-stake (e.g., Hu & Connelly, 2021).

For example, Birkeland and colleagues (2006) demonstrated that job applicants would show different behaviour on personality assessments in high-stake situations, so when applying for a job, compared to those who were completing the assessments for fun.

Specifically, Conscientiousness and Emotional Stability on Big Five personality constructs are the two scales where people show self-promoting behaviours the most.

Believe it or not, around 30%-50% of successfully-hired applicants elevated their responses in personality tests in the hiring process. Particularly, their score is higher when they were applying for a job, compared to their score when they did the same tests one month later (Griffith et al., 2007).

Differences in self-reports and peer-reviews

You might argue that it’s very normal for us to have more motivation in a high-stakes situation compared to low-stakes’. Okay that’s fine, let’s put aside the external contexts we are in. A cruel but true fact: Even in the exact same round of evaluation, our self-reported result would also have a discrepancy with other-reported results about us.

With that being said, our colleagues’ or supervisors’ evaluations of our task performance might be more accurate than our self-evaluated results.

One research from Harris and Schaubroeck (1988) showed that people’s self-ratings about their job performance has only moderate correlations with peers’ (r=0.36) and supervisors’ ratings (r=0.35), while peers’ ratings and supervisor ratings are quite similar to each other (r=0.62).

Another meta-analysis by Heidemeier and Moser (2009) indicated that on average, people’s self-ratings were significantly higher than supervisor’s ratings, and their correlation is also considered weak (r=0.34, corrected).

Differences in self-perceptions and objective measurement

Recall the moment when you had just finished the exam and were discussing the answers with your classmates. It might have been the case that you felt confident and thought you would get a quite good score on that exam. Even so, by the time the results are announced, you might get a lower score than you expected. This could be proven by research from Lai & Teng (2011), which indicates that there is a low correlation between medical students’ self-perceived competence and the results from an objective test (r=0.13-0.24).

Apart from that, Freund and Kasten (2012) have done a meta-analysis regarding the relationship between people’s self-estimated cognitive abilities and the actual score from psychometric tests, revealing only a moderate correlation of 0.33.

What is more is the correlation between how people perceive their future work-related performance and how they actually perform is only around 0.2 for complex tasks (Stajkovic & Luthans, 1998).

But why do these differences exist?

Reason 1: Intentional faking

The dark side of the story is that people choose to intentionally fake their competence for the sake of their own benefit. Self-report-based assessments are infamous for this risk to happen because they lack proper “gatekeepers” for this faking behaviour, in terms of motivation, ability and opportunity to fake. Let me explain what each of these mean to give you a more clear picture of the situation you’re dealing with.

  • Motivation to fake: It refers to whether one chooses to engage in faking behaviour. For example, a person who strongly desires to change their current job might be strongly eager to fake their abilities to pursue new, more prestigious job opportunities (Landers & Sanchez, 2022; Roulin et al., 2016). 
  • Ability to fake: It refers to whether one has the mental resources (such as knowledge, cognitive capacity) to fake. For example, one might possess the knowledge (e.g., familiarity with the assessment, understanding of culture fit) to tailor their responses to the company’s expectations (Landers & Sanchez, 2022).  
  • Opportunity to fake: It refers to whether one has the possibility to fake. For example, one might easily choose the answers that are obviously the “correct” answer to best show their abilities even though in reality they may not even have those abilities. 

Reason 2: Unintentional self-presentation

Even for perfectly honest candidates, these score differences would still exist because of the “self-presentation” (also known as “social desirability bias”). It was introduced for unintentional faking, whereby candidates (involuntarily) choose the most socially desirable answer instead of the options that represent them the most (Ganster et al., 1983). 

The worst thing about it? This could happen even without us noticing it.

Besides, it could also possibly be the fact that we already wrongly assessed ourselves in the first place. From the examples aforementioned, the reason behind the discrepancy between self-estimation and other-estimation of our competence could be that we are overly optimistic about our talents, expertise and predictions for future events (Dunning et al., 2004).

Psychological mechanisms behind unintentional self-presentation

The unrealistic optimism about ourselves can be explained by the overconfidence effect and the above-average effect. 

Overconfidence effect refers to the phenomenon of people placing too much confidence in their judgement and their prediction, which assumes their decision-making will yield positive outcomes (Dunning et al., 2004). To illustrate, in the data collected from 33 nations (Stankov & Lee, 2014), 70.7% of people showed an overestimation in their cognitive ability test scores in contrast to 29.3% of people showed an underestimation of their scores. 


overconfidence effect

On the other hand, above-average effect refers to the phenomenon that we tend to believe ourselves to be better than average(Chambers & Windschitl, 2004). For instance, we tend to think the likelihood of negative events happening to us is less than others, while believing that the likelihood of encountering positive events would be greater than others (Price et al., 2002). 

Moreover, Pronin and colleagues (2002) had gotten a research outcome that people think they are more likely than their peers to accurately and unbiasedly give a self-assessment.

above average effect

Psychological mechanisms

One of the most important resources for us to accurately assess ourselves is the information from external environments. However, oftentimes this information is absent in the sense of insufficiency or neglect. (Dunning et al., 2004).

#1 Information insufficiency

In general, it is quite difficult for us to have all the information we need to appraise our skills and performance. For example, we may have taken 20 minutes to fix a bug from the code we generated and we thought that we are quite good at debugging. But the fact is that the bug can be fixed within 5 minutes by senior developers and we do not always know about it. 

What makes it even worse is that we do not always receive complete, honest and immediate feedback, leading us to keep holding that inflated perception about our skills and performance (Dunning et al., 2004). 

Let’s say you are a manager and have given advice to your team members on how to improve their workflow. After a period of time, your team is performing quite well and you suppose it resulted from the advice you gave before. However, what we might not know is whether the team members perhaps have invested other efforts to improve their workflow. 

That’s why we lack complete feedback for the effectiveness of our suggestions. 

In the workplace, the competence needed is usually ill-defined, especially the soft skills (such as problem-solving ability, or negotiation skills). Take a moment and think about it: what would be considered the definition of having good problem-solving skills? 

  • Being efficient when solving problems? 
  • Being good at spotting the problems? 
  • Being able to generate many solutions to one problem? 


Either one of these could be the standards while we think we are the top problem-solvers, so we are taking advantage to define those ill-defined competencies to our liking. 

Ironically, we only believe ourselves to be above average on those ill-defined traits (e.g., idealistic, disciplined), but not necessarily the ones with constrained definitions (e.g., neat, punctual; Dunning et al., 1989; Sul et al., 2003)

#2 Information neglect

Even though there is valuable information right in front of our eyes, we might exclusively focus on ourselves and involuntarily choose to ignore others. For instance, people would say they do quite well on riding bicycles – thinking of the fact that they have no trouble whatsoever when they bike – when being asked how well they can ride a bicycle, but forgetting the fact that other people may have no difficulty riding bikes as well (Kruger, 1999; Dunning et al., 2004).

Furthermore, we might suffer from taking our past experience as a reference for future behaviour as we normally take an “inside view” rather than an “outside view”. In our perception, we might think that we are able to finish our task within the deadline (Buehler et al., 2002).

However, in reality, we are oftentimes too optimistic in planning our deadlines and actually spending much more time than we expected to complete our tasks. We immerse ourselves in the bubble we created about the fallacy of the current situation but failed to accept a more data-driven strategy.

Main takeaways

Self-assessments are proven to be highly inaccurate, here are four main reasons why:

  1. There are significant differences in our self-assessments comparing low-stakes situations (doing a personality test for fun) and high-stakes situations (completing it for a job application).

  2. Research also showed that our peers have a more accurate view on our performance than we do about ourselves. But why?

  3. We might intentionally fake our responses. This might be because we really want the job we are applying for, we know how the assessment works or have some understanding about the company’s culture and culture fit. We might even just recognise the obviously ‘correct answer’ and choose it because we can.

  4. And then there is unintentional self-presentation, which is also called Social Desirability. Without knowing, we might present ourselves as more capable (Overconfidence Effect), or we might believe ourselves as better than others (Above-Average Effect), we might not have complete information about our performance (Information Insufficiency) or we might involuntarily ignore others and focus on ourselves (Information Neglect).

To conclude

While using self-assessment in hiring procedure, be aware of the risk of self-assessment. It could be inaccurate compared to other-reported assessments, objective measurements and depend on external environments (low-stakes vs high stakes).

The differences in these dimensions could be caused by intentional faking and unintentional self-presentation. Unintentional self-presentation can be seen as a consequence of overconfidence and above-average effect, which is caused by the psychological mechanisms of information insufficiency and neglect.

Cheers, Jiaying.


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