Given their qualifications, she had a weightier resume, but he got the job. Bias at work? Not necessarily the sort you’d think of. It might be that his was circulated on a stiff clipboard, while hers was put on a flimsy one. The result is that her resume feels literally and so seems metaphorically flimsier than his.
Research reported in the current Science substantiates this story. Here’s the reference and abstract:
Science 25 June 2010:
Vol. 328. no. 5986, pp. 1712 – 1715
Incidental Haptic Sensations Influence Social Judgments and Decisions
Joshua M. Ackerman, Christopher C. Nocera, John A. Bargh
Touch is both the first sense to develop and a critical means of information acquisition and environmental manipulation. Physical touch experiences may create an ontological scaffold for the development of intrapersonal and interpersonal conceptual and metaphorical knowledge, as well as a springboard for the application of this knowledge. In six experiments, holding heavy or light clipboards, solving rough or smooth puzzles, and touching hard or soft objects nonconsciously influenced impressions and decisions formed about unrelated people and situations. Among other effects, heavy objects made job candidates appear more important, rough objects made social interactions appear more difficult, and hard objects increased rigidity in negotiations. Basic tactile sensations are thus shown to influence higher social cognitive processing in dimension-specific and metaphor-specific ways.
This work has a basis in Lakoff and Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By (1980). It also fits in with a lot we know about influences that we may not notice. For example, the chances are that the next menu you open in a restaurant (in the States at least) will not have dollar signs before the figures giving the cost of a item. Why? Dollar signs inhibit spending. Or, as John Doris points out in Lack of Character, finding a dime can make one more likely to help someone who has fallen.
There are two different directions I’d love to see a discussion of this material go in. One is practical and the other more theoretical. This part, Part One, is practical.
Can we do anything with the information about haptic influence? Should job candidates send their files off in stiff folders? And what else should one then try to do?
We do know of other environmental factors that affect the accuracy of choices of the sort that matter in academic contexts. For example, a stressed situation invites judgments more influenced by hidden biases. Trying to mirror others’ gestures is supposed to help one is job interviews. One is well advised to dress the part one wants to get. And so on.
One factor that starts to look crucial is that decisions about hiring and promotion need to be made in a group and by a group, so that purely accidental variations weigh less. But how about grading and writing letters of reference?
What do you think?