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Rising Above Cognitive Errors: Guidlines For Search, Tenure Review, And Other Evaluation Committees

Tomorrow's Academy

Message Number: 
668

Cognitive scientists are proving definitively that many of the selection and evaluation tasks we undertake on a daily basis are alarmingly "contaminated." The contaminants-what can be generically termed cognitive shortcuts and errors-are present in academia as we gather and sort through information, interpret it, and then come to decisions and evaluations about, for instance, job candidates, tenure and promotion cases, grant and fellowship applicants.

Folks:

The posting below looks at a "number of cognitive errors and shortcuts routinely and unwittingly made by individual evaluators, and then casts light on seven common dysfunctions within academic organizations that can and usually do intensify the severity of the cognitive errors." It is by JoAnn Moody, a national diversity consultant who works with a variety of campuses. It is from "Rising Above Cognitive Errors: Guidelines for Search, Tenure Review, and other Evaluation Committees" which was released in April 2005. More information can be found at her website: [www.DiversityOnCampus.com].

Regards,

Rick Reis reis@stanford.edu UP NEXT: Faculty as Mentor

Tomorrow's Academia

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RISING ABOVE COGNITIVE ERRORS: GUIDELINES FOR SEARCH, TENURE REVIEW, AND OTHER EVALUATION COMMITTEES

JoAnn Moody, PhD, JD National Diversity Consultant Director, Northeast Consortium for Faculty Diversity

Cognitive scientists are proving definitively that many of the selection and evaluation tasks we undertake on a daily basis are alarmingly "contaminated." The contaminants-what can be generically termed cognitive shortcuts and errors-are present in academia as we gather and sort through information, interpret it, and then come to decisions and evaluations about, for instance, job candidates, tenure and promotion cases, grant and fellowship applicants.

During these intense cognitive processes, all or most of us unwittingly commit a variety of errors and automatically take shortcuts. If we are rushed and distracted, then the errors and shortcuts multiply. In such situations, it is easy to appreciate the humor and truth in the epigram: "Search committees represent academia at its most dysfunctional." When those involved in searches are not given the opportunity to be thorough, deliberate, and careful in their decision-making, then dysfunction will result.

The tenure review process, especially when rushed, can also reveal colleges and universities at their most disappointing. The behind-closed-doors process is at times corrupted by a number of "small-minded" actions, such as "back-scratching, institutional politics, envy, nepotism, spite, or personal hostility" expressed and acted out against the tenure candidate by one or more members of the review committee.

My Purpose. Evaluators and decision-makers in higher education, I maintain, should become aware of the typical cognitive errors that can prevent their reaching fair and sound judgments. Once aware of these errors, the power-holders should learn to rise above them.

In Part I, I discuss fifteen cognitive errors and shortcuts routinely and unwittingly made by individual evaluators, and then I cast light on seven common dysfunctions within academic organizations that can and usually do intensify the severity of the cognitive errors.

In Part II, I set forth concrete steps for rising above or preventing these errors as well as concrete steps for reducing the organizational dysfunctions.

Part III contains several Discussion Scenarios (practice exercises) that can be used by individual readers, search and tenure/promotion committees, department chairs and deans, and indeed entire academic departments, to hone their skillsŠ..

Excerpts from the Cognitive Errors Section of the MonographŠ

3. Cognitive Error: Raising the Bar. This error, related to negative stereotyping, involves raising requirements for a job during the very process of searching. The raising is felt to be necessary because of the decision-maker's realization that the candidate is a member of a group thought to be incompetent and suspect.

You might hear: Say, don't we need more writing samples from Latorya? I know we asked for only three samples from applicants. But I'd feel better if we had a few more in this case. I just want to make really sure she's qualified.

A second instance: Another committee member agrees and says, Well, I wish Latorya had a doctorate from Princeton or somewhere like that. Can't we decide right now that a candidate has to be from the Ivy League?

My point is that raising the bar is unfair and yet unwittingly and repeatedly done in academia. Unfortunately, power-holders don't stop to ponder why they may be uncomfortable and why they desire both more evidence and more qualifications for one candidate but not for another.

4. Cognitive Error: Elitism. This error involves feeling superior or wanting to feel superior. Elitism (also known as snobbery) could take this form: downgrading on the basis of the candidate's undergraduate or doctoral campuses, regional accent, dress, jewelry, social class, ethnic background, and so on (Moody, Padilla). A search committee member might complain: She's so very Southern--I'm not sure I can stand that syrupy accent. And I always associate that kind of accent with illiteracy. Or conversely, giving extra points on the basis of the candidate's alma mater, accent, dress, or other items can be a manifestation of elitism. A search committee member might observe about a candidate: Isn't it nice to hear his English accent? That's worth a million to me.

Another example: Fearing that a non-immigrant minority colleague will somehow lessen the quality and standing of the department, a committee member might say: Well, shouldn't we always ask if a particular hire like Dewayne is likely to bolster our place in the ratings wars? I don't think that's so unreasonable.

Another example: Are we sure Ricardo will be productive enough to keep up with our publishing standards? I'm not so sure.

Elitism can, of course, prompt a committee member to feel validated because the candidate will bring some extra snob appeal. I think Les's doctorate from Stanford is just the kind of boost in prestige that we could use around here. I see no reason why we can't take the Stanford degree at face value and forego the so-called 'weighting' of what Les has done at Stanford with what the other candidates have accomplished at their hard-scrabble places. To me, that's an awful waste of our time.

7. Cognitive Error: Good Fit/Bad Fit. Increasingly, search committees and tenure review committees consider whether a job candidate would be a good or bad fit for their department. While it is necessary for a job candidate to be able to meet the programmatic needs of the department and students as well as the academic specifications of the position description, this is not what is usually meant by good or bad fit. Instead, "fit" can be translated to mean "will I feel comfortable and culturally at ease with this new hire or will I have to learn some new ways to relate to this hire?"

In other words, the longing to clone and to stay as a mono-culture within the department may be prompting the complaint that the candidate "just won't fit with us." The same longing to clone can appear in tenure reviews when the tenure candidate is faulted for not being collegial. Clearly, rampant subjectivity and arbitrariness can be invited into committee deliberations when the question is asked: "Is this a good fit?"

You may overhear: Well, I think Mercedes doesn't deserve tenure. We've lived with her long enough to know that she's really very, very different from the rest of us. To be blunt, she's just not the kind of person I like to spend time with, especially socially. She's never going to become a soccer mom, if you know what I mean.

Another search example: Francisco will stick out in our department, as I'm sure everyone here senses. Won't he be hard to relate to? He's just too different from the rest of us. We've got a bad fit here, I think. On the other hand, Jerry will be great for us. He can hit the ground running and will be able to read our minds-well, at least most of the time. That's the beauty of his coming here. He'll fit right in to everything.

14. Premature Ranking/Digging In.

All too often, evaluators rush to give numerical preferences to the candidates or applicants they are considering. I often wonder if this rush-to-ranking relieves evaluators and falsely assures them that they have now escaped both personal subjectivity and embarrassing vulnerability to cognitive errors. Perhaps they finally feel they have achieved objectivity and fairness. After all, a ranking, a number, indicates objectivity! At least this is the way many of us academics unfortunately seem to reason.

The superficial rush to rank candidates leads evaluators to prematurely state their position (he's number one, in my view); close their minds to new evidence; and then defend their stated position to the death. Rather than developing a pool of acceptable and qualified candidates and then comparing, contrasting, and mulling over candidates' different strengths with one's colleagues, some evaluators prefer to simplify their task. Here is one illustration of premature ranking and digging in: Well, I don't want to waste time here by summarizing each candidate's strengths and weaknesses, as the provost suggested. That seems to me just a useless writing exercise proposed by an overzealous former English professor. I've got enough evidence to make up my mind about who should be number one, number two, and number three. I just hope we can hire number one and not be stuck with any of the others. Another illustration: Let's go through the categories we're using and assign points from each category to each of the serious candidates for this job. I totally trust everyone here so you don't have to give me subtle or complicated reasons for your points. With this approach, we just quickly add up the points and we've got a decision on our first choice-all in twenty-five minutes or less.

In other words, rushing to rank will eliminate the need for engagement with colleagues in higher-order thinking, sifting through and interpreting evidence, comparing and contrasting, and "weighting" the importance of evidence. Rushing to rank easily leads to rushing to judgment.