Cognitive Biases and Limitations of Search Committees

Cognitive Biases and Limitations of Search Committees

A philosopher whose last name starts with a letter towards the end of the alphabet writes in:

I wonder how often members of search committees work through alphabetized stacks of dossiers?  I recently had a few conversations with people who have been on search committees, and both mentioned working through an alphabetized stack.

I work in phil cog. sci. and psychology, and some of my work deals with fatigue effects in evaluations—whereby evaluations can become harsher the longer someone has been at it, and overall we just become inefficient once something becomes tedious. It’s why I grade anonymously and try to do it with small batches.

There has certainly been a lot of discussion of how bias can enter into the job market and interviewing, and in many cases it can be very hard to fix.  This is an easy one to flag and fix.

There are other cognitive biases that can enter into the decisions of search committees. Here’s one brief piece issued by the government of Singapore that does a fairly good job of describing them in the context of hiring, including contrast bias, anchoring and adjustment, order effects, confirmation bias, representativeness bias, and others. It also contains some suggestions about standardizing hiring procedures so as to minimize the impact of such biases.

It would be helpful to hear what steps search committees are taking, if any, to take into account the effects of these kinds of biases. At least one department is asking that writing samples be prepared as if for anonymous review. What is your department doing?


(image: from Edward Gorey’s The Gashlycrumb Tinies)

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