Guilt By Association

I’ve long wondered: why do students pay such a premium to go to a school with impressive professors, even when those professors largely ignore them?  Yesterdays’ Post gives a clue:

Social psychologist Michelle Hebl … had volunteers evaluate a mock job applicant. Some volunteers saw the applicant sitting in a waiting room next to an overweight person, while others saw the applicant in the waiting room sitting next to a person of average weight. … Hebl found that volunteers rated job applicants more negatively when they had been seen seated next to an overweight person than when they were seen seated next to an average weight person. The volunteers had no idea that they were showing not only a prejudice against fat people but also a bias against people who were merely in proximity to overweight people. … Men and women seen in the company of beautiful partners are perceived as being more attractive than when they are seen in plainer company. … Heterosexual men seen in the company of gay men had some of the stigma attached to homosexuality rub off on them.

GD Star Rating
loading...
Tagged as:
Trackback URL:
  • http://michaelgr.com/ Michael G.R.

    That’s not surprising. Probably the same reason why popular people tend to become more popular; it feeds on itself as more people befriend popular people because they want the aura of popularity to rub off on them..

  • http://profile.typekey.com/razka/ razib
  • spindizzy

    Robin, sorry if I am straw-manning you but isn’t this the kind of deference to the judgement of others which you have argued for previously?

    “The volunteers had no idea that they were showing not only a prejudice against fat people…”

    The word “prejudice” suggests irrationality, but ceteris paribus negatively judging overweight applicants is rational. Obesity is a cause of poor health, and poor health causes absenteeism.

  • Joseph Buck

    spin,

    Concerning the idea that being overweight causes absenteeism: that is a stereotype that might be true in some cases but that would need to be checked on an individual basis. A simple reference check might show that the applicant has no problems with absenteeism. At least for moderate overweightness (short of obesity, which the quotation does not mention), an unbiased evaluator would probably want to look past this physical signal toward actual problems that might be there — or might not.

  • http://www.hopeanon.typepad.com Hopefully Anonymous

    I’m not endorsing prejudice against the overweight (I suspect I’d personally offend a large share of blog readers and bloggers :P) but when you start discussing “A simple reference check”, you’re discussing the expenditure of energy. It seems likely to me that one of the purposes of stereotyping is to increase decision-making efficiency. There does seem to be a bit of a rational balance between efficiency in making decisions and nuance in making the best possible decisions. After all, a percentage of applicants with past problems with absenteeism would have model attendance if offered a chance at a job today. But it would require additional energy to sort them out from those who’d fail the “simple reference check”. Anyone know of additional readings that do a more comprehensive job of sorting out efficiency vs. accuracy? It seems to be a fundamental challenge with real world application of bayesian reasoning too. For example, how designers of bayesian networks handle this.

  • Mason

    I think most people are missing the crux of this post:

    “Hebl found that volunteers rated job applicants more negatively when they had been seen seated next to an overweight person than when they were seen seated next to an average weight person.”

    It might make sense to rate overweight applicants more negatively because “Obesity is a cause of poor health, and poor health causes absenteeism,” but it doesn’t make any sense to rate an applicant siting next to an overweight more negatively.

  • http://www.scottaaronson.com Scott Aaronson

    It seems likely to me that one of the purposes of stereotyping is to increase decision-making efficiency.

    From The Onion: Stereotypes Are A Real Time-Saver

  • Tom P

    The value of a school’s diploma is dependent on a few factors, such as:

    1) The quality of education at the school
    2) The perceived capability of other people who have the same diploma (alumni) – if alums are perceived as capable, having the diploma becomes a signal of one’s capability since both you and the alum were selected and educated through the same process
    3) The association bias mentioned in this post

    I’m fairly sure that 1) and 2) are much, much more important in determining the value of a school’s diploma to a prospective student. How many employers even know who big-shot professors are in various fields?

    As I see it (following point 2), the “Harvard” name may simply be a “coordination point” for intelligent students who don’t care much whether the faculty are brilliant or whether they will actually get a decent education. It’s just a signal that they are as good as everyone else who went to Harvard.

    My point: while students undoubtedly attend Harvard to associate themselves with great professors, they probably care much more about associating themselves with other Harvard students. Basically, I think the article’s claim is fairly irrelevant to the perceived value of a degree (in the mind of a prospective student).

  • spindizzy

    Replies to several people:

    Mason:
    I do appreciate the point of the original post, but for me the question of guilt by association was less interesting than the unspoken assumption that any physical assessment of job candidates by an employer is “prejudiced”.

    Scott:
    The Onion article is entertaining, but it’s a straw man. I’m not saying that an employer should never hire overweight applicants. I’m saying that _ceteris paribus_ an employer would be wise to select the applicant in best physical health.

    This is not just an academic question, since for most desirable jobs there is a surplus of candidates who meet the core requirements.

    Joseph:
    Are you disputing the correlation between obesity and poor health, or between poor health and absenteeism? As far as I know, both are well established. Or do you have some other objection?

    Hopefully Anonymous:
    Perhaps I have offended some people, and it really isn’t my intention to be offensive for its own sake. However, this blog for people who are serious about overcoming bias, not for people who want to feel good about themselves.

  • Caledonian

    I do appreciate the point of the original post, but for me the question of guilt by association was less interesting than the unspoken assumption that any physical assessment of job candidates by an employer is “prejudiced”.

    The fact that the negative evaluation transferred to people merely sitting next to the overweight candidates strongly suggests that the evaluation is not a rational one.

  • Dihymo

    Spin, you assume a manager is even thinking of absenteeism when looking at a fat person. Why is it we find ourselves denying human nature by placing labels like employer on people? Most of what we do comes from misunderstood gut feelings which are bubbles of unlabeled information coming out of a pool of personal history with everything blurred together. If we guessed about something or heard about it at half-attention and the sentiment was never challenged within a certain time, the brain gives it a high confidence and takes it as truth.