My overall point in this post is to say that interview timing and order matters a lot. Perhaps the early bird does get the worm after all. More nuanced explanations follow below after I present some stories and evidence. Now, onwards to the text…
Growing up, I played alto saxophone for a number of years. I played on my own and took lessons while also playing in the official school bands in middle school and for most of high school. And like many band members, I attended band camp—specifically for me, Midwestern Music Camp at the University of Kansas for an entire week (you stay at the KU dorms; you rehearse in Murphy Hall and perform at the Lied Center; very cool for a band kid etc.). I think I did this for four or five summers.
KU runs a very large camp, so they split campers into multiple bands depending on skill level. My recollection is that to decide skill level and chairs,1 you audition with the department head of your instrument at KU. I’m foggy about the exact process, but I remember signing up for an audition time and spending hours in agony practicing and waiting before being able to get the audition over with. Don’t quote me on this, but I want to say that you could check-in and audition in the morning and afternoons over a two-day period (perhaps it was only one day; I can't remember).
I was not even the best saxophonist at my own high school, but overall I was fairly good. One of the later years I attended band camp, I made 2nd chair in the top flight band, which I was estatic about. What displeased me, and to the best of my recollection the rest of the saxophonists in the band as well, was the skill level of the individual who was given 1st chair. Frankly, this person was very mediocre. They misplayed all week long and at multiple points just dropped out of sections of songs entirely because they could not keep up with the music. I was very annoyed that this person was given 1st chair ahead of me.
Perhaps it had something to do with the audition timing.
I’ve been a longtime reader of Ed Yong, who a couple of years ago highlighted a paper by Shai Danzigera, Jonathan Levavb, and Liora Avnaim-Pessoa that documents an odd trend in judge parole rulings (Ed Yong’s summary here; full paper here). Here is the most relevant chart from the paper:
What this shows is the proportion of parole rulings that favor the prisoner over an average day of rulings (tick marks on the x-axis note every third case). Data were collected from 1,112 hearings over a 10-month period. The dotted lines represent food breaks and effectively creates three ruling sessions each day. The chart shows that prisoners at the beginning of each session have a much greater likelihood of receiving a favorable ruling than those at the end of each session. This holds across the entire sample of judges and rulings (more controls for other variables and explanation are available in the full paper). What Danzigia and his co-authors theorize is that the judges' mental resources are used up early in each session, so they are sticking with the easier status quo decision as they tire out; the food breaks help judges reset. Whatever the interpretation, there is clearly some unfortunate bias against prisoners who receive rulings scheduled later in each session.
A recent paper by Uri Simonsohn and Francesca Gino analyzed thousands of interview timings of MBA students (gated full paper here; earlier working paper version here; press release summary here). They find that interview position matters here too. Over multiple days of interviews, what does an interviewer do if the best applicants all come on the same day, or even all on the same day right next to each other? Simonsohn and Gino find that an interviewer expects to recommend the same number of applications each day and that this constrains their ratings. Once they near this subconscious daily quota on each day, they are hesitant to approve additional applications from that day regardless of their overall merit. This means that interviews early in the day have a negative impact on interviews later in the day; if early interviews are given high scores, the subsequent applicants are more likely to receive lower scores regardless of the applicant’s characteristics. This effect grew even stronger as the day wore on.
I cannot remember what time of day I auditioned at band camp so many years ago. However, knowing myself, I would have been sleeping in and saved a couple of hours to practice at KU before the audition, so there is no way that I auditioned in the morning. If we assume I am objectively able to rate and compare my saxophone skills, I can say that I am now disappointed to now find out years later that logically it looks like my audition timing helped seal my second-best chair position. I perhaps did not look as strong in the afternoon as I might have in the morning.I think the research I’ve summarized here extrapolates well to startups—who have to interview, pitch, and audition to various parties all the time—particularly the interpretation from the MBA interview paper that high scoring early on creates a bias against later candidates. This is particularly important to consider in the context of startup competitions or submission of competitive bids. I will weakly suggest that if you have an option, perhaps going early in a competitive scenario is better than waiting. The more powerful interpretation is something you have no control over—hope that your strongest competition isn’t interviewed or reviewed around the same time you are? Yikes, that’s depressing. Perhaps judges and reviewers should make sure to take plenty of breaks when they are reviewing and scoring pools of applicants.
1 Chair is music terminology referring to skill and seating position within a band or orchestra. The best player of a given instrument is 1st chair of their section and second-best is 2nd chair, and so on and so forth.