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The Warren Harding Error

Updated: Jun 3

When Donald Trump recently contracted COVID-19, Warren Harding was briefly in the

news as one of the four US Presidents who died of natural causes while in office.

Despite a landslide victory when elected and his huge popularity at the time, he was

largely forgotten in the mainstream consciousness until he featured in Chapter 3 of

Malcolm Gladwell’s book, ‘Blink’.

Gladwell uses The Warren Harding Error as a cautionary tale on how snap judgements

can go horribly wrong, explaining why picking the right candidate for a job is so

difficult; and why, on more occasions than we may care to admit, the hiring process

can fail to deliver…

‘Blink’ is a book about how we ‘know’ something without really knowing why. It’s

about the power of first impressions: arguing that decisions made very quickly can be

every bit as good as decisions made cautiously and deliberately.

This might be taken by many interviewers as good news, given that it’s common for

less experienced interviewers to make a decision about an applicant in the first few

minutes of the interview. After all, many people pride themselves on using their

intuition and gut feel in spotting high-potential candidates.

But Warren Harding serves as an example of the limitations of intuitive judgements.

He was the 29 US President, from 1921 until his death in 1923. After his death, a

number of scandals came to light, as well as an extramarital affair which did little to

help his reputation. His chief asset was apparently that “he was worth looking at’.

He was’ handsome with an impression of physical grace and virility’. His voice was

‘noticeably resonant, masculine and warm’. His manner suggested ‘generous goodnature

and a sincere kindliness of heart’. He was not a particularly intelligent man

but he ‘looked like a senator’ and radiated dignity and all that was Presidential.

Gladwell points out that ‘many people who looked at Warren Harding saw how

extraordinarily handsome and distinguished-looking he was and jumped to the

immediate – and unwarranted – conclusion that he was a man of courage and

intelligence and integrity’. Unfortunately, this turned out to be not the case and his is

today rated by historians as one of the worst presidents in American history.

Gladwell highlights The Warren Harding error as the dark side of rapid cognition: it is

at the root of a good deal of prejudice and discrimination.

The point he is making is that snap judgements work best when they are made by

experts in their field of domain expertise. But when it comes to interviewing, there is a

real danger of being influenced by subconscious biases – both positive and negative

– which can result in hiring failure.

This is why Godliman has developed our proprietary Best-Fit Search™ process: to help

eliminate bias in candidate identification and selection. We first identify possible

candidates using Quantifiable Criteria agreed with our clients and applied equally

across all candidates; and then we apply a three-step Assessment of Fit process to

gauge their suitability for the role. This systematic and exhaustive process roots out

bias in candidate identification and selection by subjecting all candidates to the

same scrutiny, which is why the longevity.


Last edited 20th December 2020


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