Monday, 28 February 2011

Division of Occupational Psychology conference report

I'll close up our first full month here at the Occupational Digest with the first of a few reports on the Division's annual conference which ran 12-14th of January this year.
I was engaged and provoked by Timothy Judge's Myers Lecture, challenging “The illusions under which we labour”. His sights were on the “situational premise”: the idea that environment and context matter in explaining human behaviour, thus allowing occupational psychology to fixate on culture, recommend interventions, and believe in change. Judge examined this assumption via a wide-ranging tour of findings from behavioural genetics, such as the heritability of altruism, together with evidence of how humans quickly adapt to a new status quo; key examples here included how both marriage and lottery wins have only a transient impact on your levels of life satisfaction.
Judge ended by suggesting that because people are difficult to change, we should place more focus on recruiting the right type of people, redesigning jobs to fit people and leveraging strengths rather than trying to fix weakness; all laudable activities, I feel, and each of them currently practised in the profession (the first of those frankly dominates the industry!). The conclusion itself was less convincing, and I think he would have to be armed with a more systematic argument, based on evidence that tied directly to the methods and objectives in question, in order for organisational psychologists (and educators, therapists, army trainers...) to abandon their belief that individuals can change to become more effective at accomplishing goals.
A later talk by Steve Woods looked at ethnic differences in ability test scores. Occupational test users are sensitive to 'adverse impact' - disproportionately favouring people from one group over another – so this topic has been well researched, including using meta-analysis, which looks for patterns over a set of studies. Woods cites Roth et al’s (2001) meta-analysis which suggests a difference in means between black and white test-takers of up to 1D: loosely, this means a squarely average white candidate would score similarly to a black candidate who was sharper than nearly 85% of the black population. Evidence suggests the difference genuinely reflects group differences in ability, rather than issues with testing, with researchers disputing whether the effect reflects innate differences or cultural ones such as access to education.
Meta-analyses tend to collapse all the available data to ensure their overview is as authoritative as possible. Woods points out that by separating out the data instead, we can see whether the difference alters over time. This would give credence to the cultural cause, as genetic changes at that scale would be negligible, but cultural changes, especially for disadvantaged communities often targeted by public policy, can be more substantial. Woods and colleagues were interested in scores that reflected ‘g’, the general factor of intelligence, and considered only scores from tests that measured two or more of its subcomponents (eg numerical and verbal ability). The samples included were healthy Americans over the age of sixteen from ninety-one different samples, resulting in 1.1 million test scores, grouped into four decades from the 60s to 90s.
One unexpected finding was a spike in D, the black-white difference, when you move from the 60s to 70s. This isn't predicted by either distributional or cultural accounts, but makes sense if you think of the period before civil rights as one of limited opportunity for black people. Consequently, test taking would only be available to fairly exceptional individuals, ‘restricting the range’ to those likely to score better. Putting this decade aside, the overall trend was for a shrinking of D, closing down to around .3. Woods argues that this data changes the question from 'if' to 'how much' of the variance is due to cultural and developmental factors.
The talk was interesting especially in the light of Tim Judge’s keynote; here we saw evidence on fixed vs mutable differences in an organisational context, and, here at least, the score was culture one, genes nil.

Details about the 2011 DOP conference:

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