The Psychology Of Why Being Really, Really Weird Can Get You Hired

Lady Gaga and foundational psychological theory help unlock the ways a little eccentricity can land you at the top of the "hire" pile.

Do us a favor and look at the below set of words:

  • apple
  • truck
  • necklace
  • tomato
  • glass
  • dog
  • rock
  • umbrella
  • butter
  • spoon
  • Lady Gaga
  • pillow
  • pencil
  • chocolate
  • desk
  • banana
  • bug
  • soup
  • milk
  • tie

Which do you remember? Or, more precisely, which one stands out?

Clearly it's Lady Gaga. But why? As Neil Bearden writes for the Harvard Business Review, you remember Gaga because those words are so much different than butter, pillow, and the like--and we're predisposed to remember things that stand out.

This bias toward the weird comes from the German psychologist Hedwig von Restorff. Ol' Hedwig, who now enjoys an eponymous Effect, found that we remember atypical things more easily than typical things--which is why Lady Gaga stands out so much in the above example and in the pop world at large: she's "obsessively opposed to the typical."

The Atypical hire argument

People hire those who they remember and people remember those they find a little atypical, Bearden says. So, the argument goes, we'll be more hireable if we're enjoyably atypical. As long as we observe a few caveats.

First of all, we need to recognize that hiring managers are human animals; as such, there's a base, reptilian part of their brain that's always looking out for danger. If the person looking to hire you is acting like a reptile, then they might read your helpful eccentricity as a sign of danger--so maybe stick to distinctly mammalian companies if you're looking to leverage your weirdness.

Second, we gotta remember that people hire people they feel something in common with: your school, your hometown, what you do for fun. So if we're going for the pitch perfect self presentation, we want to establish that we're fundamentally similar to the hiring manager that we're courting--as well as delightfully, memorably different.

What could be the ideal result? Bearden paints the "who should we hire" scene for us:

... 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.

And if you forgot how to be weird, we've got you there, too.

Hat tip: Harvard Business Review

[Image: Flickr user Corin Royal Drummond]

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10 Comments

  • Freya Barnard

    Uh I think your definition of weird is a little off. Lady Gaga is a boring, normal person trying desperately hard to be weird. These are probably the people who actually get hired, not us real weirdos, we're too dangerous

  • Rendi Rainando

    wow you're so weird. your comment is the weirdest statement i've ever seen. you are really true weirdo. lady gaga is nothing compared to you. bravo! confetti pops standing ovation

  • Rendi Rainando

    wow you're so weird, real weird. your comment is the weirdest statement i've ever seen. you're right lady gaga is nothing compared to your weirdness. bravo! standing ovation confetti popping

  • someone reading this

    Clearly what stands out is the word "chocolate" ... how could you get this so wrong??

  • Cachae Thomas

    This used to work for me. Whenever I went to temp agencies, I know I left an indelible impression with the interviewer, who enjoyed my conversationalist skills. Then the outsourcing came, and Blacks were no longer needed or hired.

  • DebbyBruck

    Lots of information today about the psychology of memory. I skimmed the list quickly as instructed, then went back again when a question was asked. Even the first time through, LadyGaga was a proper noun with capital letters and a personality that did not fit the list of common words, like the staples we put in the grocery cart. Of course, that's the one we would select as standing out.

  • Mali Hirsch

    Thanks for the great article. This is exactly what got my design career started. When I showed up for an interview at an ad agency in NY, the CEO told me "if you were in the military then you can do this job". lol.

  • crs

    Stopped reading after going through your list and reading the first paragraph. Of course Lady Gaga stands out. It dos not fit into this list. Same would be true for Justin Timberlake, Apollo 13, The Empire State Building, Kim Jong Il and a gazillion other words.

  • the same person reading

    You stopped reading because you understood the first point they made in the article? I don't understand ... why?