Science envy

Many management theorists yearn to be scientific and as a consequence the domain is littered with tools which claim to have scientific validity and which go on to claim the ability to measure, predict and control many aspects of human and organisational life. So, for example, you might choose to use Cameron and Quinn’s Competing Values Framework which is supposed to allow you to diagnose and change your organisation’s culture and values. By using the tools managers can help employees line up and point in the same direction by adopting the values you require in your organisation.Then of course there is the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) which is supposed to indicate which of the Jungian personality archetypes best describes your character.

Alternatively you might use an Implicit Association Test (IAT) to diagnose unconscious bias in your employees.The IAT is usually administered as a computer-based test where respondents are asked to make associations between words. The idea seems to be that when faced with a choice between two word pairings, black/white, pleasant/unpleasant, hesitation in associating say, black with pleasant is taken to indicate unconscious bias against black people. This is also related to the speed with which one associates white with pleasant. It is a test based on manual dexterity, measuring speed of response in typing. Despite the enormous amount of energy and resources put into replicating and validating these tests, they are deeply problematic.

Firstly, in the test I took it was not possible to associate both white and black with pleasant in the same iteration: one is always obliged to choose between them. One could be forgiven for thinking that the test is creating the conditions it claims to be testing for.

Secondly, in what way do word association tests actually correlate with real-world (if you forgive the term) choices? So even if I do associate black with unpleasant would that necessarily translate into my not giving a black person a job? How are these tests valid without some kind of relation to people acting on their unconscious biases, and surely there must be some ethical problems of pursuing this. In other words, I can understand how efforts can be made to make the test internally consistent, but in what way are they consistent with the ‘real world’ they claim to represent? How would one ‘prove’ their predictability? Predictive of what?

Thirdly, the tests conform to the behaviourist assumptions of cognitive psychology where attitude is considered to be an individual construct which dictates behaviour, and if identified can be changed. Attitude precedes behaviour, rather than being understood the other way round, that because I have behaved in a particular way over many, many occasions, so this has formed my attitude.There is also the rationalist causality behind the idea of  ‘surfacing your mental models’ in order to change them: the implicit assumption here is that it is possible to make the unconscious conscious, and by doing do change first one’s attititude, then one’s behaviour.

Additionally, my attitude, a tendency to act in a particular way, will have been formed in different social settings. It may be that I am racist but sit with an interview panel who are not: as this becomes obvious to me it becomes extremely difficult to express my racial bias in public. The opposite is also true if I am not racist, but the other people I interview with are – so I may feel constrained in saying what I really think. And on what basis do I can I assume that the people I am interviewing with are unconsciously biased unless they explicitly give this as a reason for not appointing a black candidate? The test takes no account of the social nature of prejudice.

The IAT is both individualistic and reductive and takes a complex phenomenon such as racism or broader forms of discrimination against other social groups and assumes this is provable as unconscious bias by means of  a word association test. It makes claims to reveal our unconscious motivations on the basis of measuring the speed of our reactions on a computer key board. To what degree is this helpful for working with discrimination, or in the case of the other tools, organisational culture and staff values?


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