career corner
magine you are in the middle of
your next job interview and things
are going very well. All of sudden,
however, the interviewer asks,
How many hairstylists are there
in the U.S.?”
What do you do now?
First of all, you should not be surprised
to be asked what is typically known
as a “puzzle question.” Originally
popularized by Microsoft in the 1990s,
puzzle interview questions have been
used in a variety of industries.
Unlike traditional interview questions,
puzzle questions present applicants
with novel and ambiguous problems in
which typically there is no single correct
answer. The purpose of these questions
is to test an applicant’s creativity,
flexibility, and resourcefulness in
thinking through how to possibly solve
the question.
Despite the use of puzzle interview
questions, very little research has
examined the topic. Recently, I
collaborated with colleagues on an
experiment examining college students’
perceptions of puzzle interview
questions compared to questions on
job-related behaviors.
Undergraduate participants viewed
a videotaped interview of a person
applying for one of four jobs. Half
of the participants viewed a puzzle
interview with such questions as “If
you could remove one of the 50 U.S.
states which would it be and why?”
and “How would you weigh a jet plane
without using scales?” The other half
of the participants viewed a behavioral
interview with questions such as
Tell me about a time when you had
a conflict with either a supervisor or
coworker and describe the steps you
took to resolve the conflict.”
Don’t be puzzled by interview riddles
How to tackle puzzle questions in a job interview
We’re trying something new with Career Corner. IU Southeast faculty are experts in their fields, including those fields related
to employment. What better way to use their expertise than to ask them to guest author this section? This issue the guest
author is psychology professor Todd Manson, who recently co-authored a study on puzzle questions in job interviews.
By Todd M. Manson
Assistant Professor of Psychology
Participants in the study had more
negative reactions to the puzzle
interview, which was rated as being
less fair and less effective in hiring
good employees than the behavioral
The real issue for those on the job
market, however, is how to handle
puzzle interview questions. For this I
have two main suggestions.
First, in addition to using sound
interview preparation techniques,
such as researching the job and
organization, developing a list of
questions to ask, and practicing
responses to typical questions, you
should anticipate that you may be
asked unusual questions like puzzle
Second, realize that the interviewer
is likely not looking for one right
answer, but rather is interested in your
creativity and problem solving ability in
addressing how the question could be
For example, a superior answer to
the question “How many hairstylists
are there in the U.S.?” would identify
relevant variables, such as the
population of the U.S., the average
number of haircuts per person per year,
and the number of haircuts a stylist
can give per day, and then describe a
process for determining a solution.
So, if you encounter puzzle questions
in your next job interview, do not be
surprised and focus on a process that
could be used to answer the question.
Good luck!
Psychology professor Todd Manson, right, explains how to solve puzzle questions during job interviews.