Whether it’s a gift for small talk or a knack for arithmetic, many of us have something we feel we’re particularly good at. What happens from an early age is that this strength then becomes important for our self-esteem, which affects our behaviour in various ways. For example, children tend to choose friends who excel on different dimensions than themselves, presumably to protect their self-esteem from threat. A new study reveals another consequence – ‘the social comparison bias’ – that’s relevant to business contexts. Stated simply, when making hiring decisions, people tend to favour potential candidates who don’t compete with their own particular strengths.
Stephen Garcia and colleagues first demonstrated this idea in a hypothetical context. Twenty-nine undergrads were asked to imagine that they were a law professor with responsibility for recommending one of two new professorial candidates to join the law faculty. Half had to imagine they were a professor with a particularly high number of mixed-quality journal publications. These participants tended to say they would recommend the imaginary candidate with fewer but higher quality publications. By contrast, the other half of the participants were tasked with imagining that they were a professor with few but particularly high quality publications. You guessed it – they tended to recommend the candidate with the lower quality but more prolific publication record. In each case the participants favoured the candidate who didn’t challenge their own particular area of (imaginary) strength, be that publication quality or quantity. The participants had been told that the department had a balanced mix of existing staff so it’s unlikely their motive was a selfless one based on achieving a balanced team.
To make things more realistic, a second study involved a real decision. Forty undergrads completed verbal and maths tasks to which they were given false feedback. Next, they were presented with the scores achieved by two other students, one of whom they had to select to join their team for an up-coming group ‘coordination task’ that would involve throwing a tennis ball around. Participants tricked into thinking they’d excelled at the maths tended to choose the potential team member who was weak at maths but stronger verbally, and vice versa for those participants fed false feedback indicating they’d excelled verbally. Again, the researchers argued that it was unlikely the participants were simply striving for a balanced team because the maths and verbal skills in question weren’t relevant to the tennis ball task.
A final study involved 55 employees at a Midwestern university – they were asked to imagine that they were in a company role with either high pay or great decision-making power. Next they had to recommend to their company that it either offer high pay or high decision-making power to a new recruit. The participants tended to advise offering the new recruit the opposite of whatever they had. The participants also said the particular perk of their imaginary post – pay or decision-making – would be the most important to their self-esteem.
‘The present analysis introduces the social comparison bias: a social comparison-based bias that taints the recommendation process,’ the researchers said. ‘At a broader level, the social comparison bias might help partially to explain why some top-notch departments or organisational units lose prestige over time … Individuals unwittingly fail to reproduce departmental strengths by protecting their personal standing instead of the standing of the broader department.’
Garcia, S., Song, H., and Tesser, A. (2010). Tainted recommendations: The social comparison bias. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 113 (2), 97-101 DOI: 10.1016/j.obhdp.2010.06.002