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.

The Psychology Of Why Being Really, Really Weird Can Get You Hired
[Image: Flickr user Corin Royal Drummond]

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

About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.