A NEVER-ENDING flow of information is the lot of most professionals. Whether it comes in the form of lawyers’ cases, doctors’ patients or even journalists’ stories, this information naturally gets broken up into pieces that can be tackled one at a time during the course of a given day.
In theory, a decision made when handling one of these pieces should not have much, if any, impact on similar but unrelated subsequent decisions.
Yet Uri Simonsohn of the University of Pennsylvania and Francesca Gino at Harvard report in Psychological Science that this is not how things work out in practice.
Dr Simonsohn and Dr Gino knew from studies done in other laboratories that people are, on the whole, poor at considering background information when making individual decisions. At first glance this might seem like a strength that grants the ability to make judgments which are unbiased by external factors. But in a world of quotas and limits–in other words, the world in which most professional people operate–the two researchers suspected that it was actually a weakness. They speculated that an inability to consider the big picture was leading decision-makers to be biased by the daily samples of information they were working with. For example, they theorised that a judge fearful of appearing too soft on crime might be more likely to send someone to prison if he had already sentenced five or six other defendants only to probation on that day.
To test this idea, they turned their attention to the university-admissions process. Admissions officers interview hundreds of applicants every year, at a rate of 4½ a day, and can offer entry to about 40% of them. In theory, the success of an applicant should not depend on the few others chosen randomly for interview during the same day, but Dr Simonsohn and Dr Gino suspected the truth was otherwise.
They studied the results of 9,323 MBA interviews conducted by 31 admissions officers. The interviewers had rated applicants on a scale of one to five. This scale took numerous factors, including communication skills, personal drive, team-working ability and personal accomplishments, into consideration. The scores from this rating were then used in conjunction with an applicant’s score on the Graduate Management Admission Test, or GMAT, a standardised exam which is marked out of 800 points, to make a decision on whether to accept him or her.
Dr Simonsohn and Dr Gino discovered that their hunch was right. If the score of the previous candidate in a daily series of interviewees was 0.75 points or more higher than that of the one before that, then the score for the next applicant would drop by an average of 0.075 points. This might sound small, but to undo the effects of such a decrease a candidate would need 30 more GMAT points than would otherwise have been necessary.
As for why people behave this way, Dr Simonsohn proposes that after accepting a number of strong candidates, interviewers might form the illogical expectation that a weaker candidate “is due”. Alternatively, he suggests that interviewers may be engaging in mental accounting that simplifies the task of maintaining a given long-term acceptance rate, by trying to apply this rate to each daily group of candidates. Regardless of the reason, if this sort of thinking proves to have a similar effect on the judgments of those in other fields, such as law and medicine, it could be responsible for far worse things than the rejection of qualified business-school candidates.
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