A used golden rule of recruitment is that past behaviour is an indication of future conduct. Businesses rely on reference checks or even Google searches to find out as much as they can about their potential new staff. But, is past behaviour a good proxy for predicting future behaviour?
Knowledge of the past is the foundation of all science and human understanding. We try to predict the future by drawing from our experience. Philosophers call this inductive process reasoning – drawing a general conclusion from a range of observations. But when you think profoundly about this, we can never know for sure that our past observations can be used to predict the future. Scottish philosopher David Hume did precisely this more than two centuries years ago when he found that it is not logical to think that past behaviour is an indication of future action.
For millennia people in Europe thought that all swans are white. This little kernel of absolute knowledge was rudely destroyed when in 1697 Dutch explorer Willem de Vlamingh was the first European to see a black swan in what is now Western Australia.
Predicting behaviour: A magician’s view
The silent part of the American magician’s duo Penn & Teller broke his usual silence and vow of secrecy when he explained a classic magic trick to a gathering of consciousness scholars. Teller showed that magicians could use the propensity of the human mind to seek patterns by skilfully changing the method during the routine. Teller beautifully illustrates what Hume philosophically argued: in human behaviour, the past is in no way a reliable approach to predicting the future.
Predicting behaviour in recruitment
We have to be careful when judging a person through second-hand information gained from referees, Facebook searches and other forms of overt espionage. People are not billiard balls that operate by laws of physics. People have free will and can change their behaviour depending on the circumstances they find themselves in.
Most importantly, we can learn from our mistakes and grow as people by learning from them. Not hiring somebody who has made an error in the past could mean that you miss out on hiring an individual with a high level of maturity and ability to adapt. Therefore, when judging a person, keep in mind the words of Roman poet Horace: “Non sum quals eram“—I am not who I once was.