Friday, 12 August 2011

Buying into the idea of 'free choice' makes us less likely to see discrimination

Illustration: Emily Wilkinson,

To all our women readers: it's great to be living in a post-discrimination world, right? Right? Is this thing on?

Whatever your view – and regardless of facts such as woman's earnings standing at under 80% of men's - many people seem to feel that way, such as the 53% of Americans in a recent Gallup poll. Nicole Stephens and Cynthia Levine of Northwestern University identify one reason for this: the 'choice framework', a view of the world particularly popular in the US that treats all actions as freely chosen based on our preferences. Seeing life purely in terms of choices can empower individuals, and studies show we can benefit psychologically. But in a new paper to be published in Psychological Science, these researchers explore how it can make us reluctant to see discrimination as a cause of mothers leaving the workforce.

In a first study, 171 stay-at-home mothers revealed through questionnaire ratings that they saw their departure from the workforces as a choice rather than something imposed on them. The more they endorsed the choice explanation, the less likely they were to interpret genuine gender inequality in a range of industries as due to discrimination or structural challenges to women working (such as a default model of work that doesn't adequately account for childcare).

The second study adopted experimental methods to manipulate exposure to the choice framework. While waiting to begin the experiment, 46 undergraduates were unwittingly exposed to a poster on the wall about “women's experiences in the workforce”; in one condition, the title began with the phrase “Choosing to leave”. Participants then completed a questionnaire, and those who had had this slight level of exposure to the choice framework were somewhat more likely to rate gender discrimination as non-existent.

Stephens and Levine note that culture propagates such messages at higher frequencies than those manipulated in their study, thus the baseline influence might be substantial. The consequences are twofold: although people feel happier when they see themselves as an active agent in their own life, this can turn against them when they meet genuine structural challenges, where it “could undermine their sense of competence or deter them from seeking help”. And on a societal level, this tendency may prevent the correction of genuine inequity. We may need cultural and political actors to reframe the debate. And an individual level, it might be enlightening to reflect once in a while on the limits to choice.

ResearchBlogging.orgStephens, Nicole, & Levine, Cynthia (2011). Opting Out or Denying Discrimination? How the Framework of Free Choice in American Society Influences Perceptions of Gender Equality Psychological Science


  1. These studies seem pretty poor, to be honest; there seems to be two big flaws in both studies:

    1) They affirm the consequent: showing that people might end up in different circumstances due to factors other than personal choice isn't equivalent to showing that people do not end up in circumstances due to choice. The actual point being raised here isn't that factors outside the individual's control are key in the way that the individual's life progresses, but that it is possible that factors outside the individual's control influence the way the individual's life progresses. This can't be used to argue that choice is an illusion, or that choice doesn't lead to individuals' lives progressing a certain way, it can only be used to argue that choice isn't the sole thing that contributes to an individual's life progression. This is in no way revelatory in the 21st century.

    2) The studies themselves seem to imply in a gender discriminatory way that childcare is a solely female issue. By making a lack of adequate work childcare a gender tied issue it necessarily follows that childrearing is inextricably tied to a particular gender, otherwise this isn't a gender discriminatory example. The mere fact that more women than men raise children isn't proof that raising children is necessarily tied to women. This, again, simply isn't reflective of the 21st century mindset.

    It's a shame that these oversights were permitted into the studies because it does intuitively follow, at least prima facie, that internal locus of control explanations of behaviour would reject external locus explanations.

  2. Hi Ben

    Interesting comments, and I have some sympathy with them; I tried to be careful in this write-up not to go beyond what the evidence actually demonstrates. As a small point, while the authors say "more difficult to recognize gender discrimination" - which implies that what's at stake is the ability to identify an objective reality - I think it's safer to articulate this in terms of a frame - "reluctant to see discrimination as a cause of mothers leaving the workforce" - vs willing to see free choice as a cause.

    That said, I think your representation of the study in 1) is a little wide of the mark - which is probably due to my writeup, so I'll try and correct this here. The study certainly doesn't prove free choice is an illusion in these matters, but I don't think it claims that either.

    They claim that if you view the world through the lens of a 'choice framework', you are less likely to accept the role of involuntary factors in specific situations. And furthermore, that viewing the world through the choice framework lens is not just the result of sober analysis of all the evidence, but (Study 2) can be influenced very subconsciously by cues in the environment. (There's a perverse appropriateness that our belief in freely choosing things can be easily manipulated without our taking a free choice in it.)

    Your point in 2) is very interesting. I'm not up on the research into this area, so I can't substantively respond to it. Though not a parent myself, based on the experiences of others I would suggest that the association of childcare with the mother hasn't disappeared quite yet, with burdens and expectations placed on them to get this part of life correct. If the pressures aren't equally distributed on male and female then this would constitute a cultural impediment to them in the workplace. This is all back of the envelope stuff, though.


  3. An interesting quote from a French Philosopher on 'Freedom and Choice' reads thus: "All human beings are free but everywhere they go, they are in chains".

    I think the 'choice argument', whilst may be a valid one, cannot be fully understood without understanding how 'free choice' is itself controlled by existing 'structures' in society. In other words, what might indeed appear to be a free choice - as in women consciously deciding to 'depart the workplace' the consequence of which they earn less than men - may in fact represent the presence of societal and indeed workplace structures that do not aide the promotion of actual free choice.

    I would further argue that the response from the previous reader is absolutely right: that the presumption that 'childcare' is a female imperative itself suggests the focus and scope of the research is limited as a lot of workplace research suggests that a key reason why less men take time of work in order to manage childcare responsibilities, is because workplace practices tend to be structurally biased against men and less so against women, which in turn, at least, subconsciously ensures more women make the 'choice' to leave the workplace - more so than men.

    Just some thoughts.

    Jude-Martin Etuka

  4. Hi Jude

    Thanks for your comment and I'm glad this paper is attracting debate, as I'm sure it was intended.

    Your points about the complexity of regarding something as free choice point to the heart of this issue. And I'm glad to see that Ben's thoughts struck a chord with you as well. I certainly find it persuasive that many aspects of workplace structure make it harder for men to take on more childcare responsibilities. I'm not sure about the implications that follow, though: if there are more biases within the workforce against men (eg making it harder for them to perform adequate fathering responsibilities and make a career) then if anything you might expect that to pressure more men into 'choosing' to leave, rather than more women.

    In my view it appears that these complex psycho-socio-cultural issues are layered and inexorably interlinked. Eg (and the folowing is conjecture)

    Men have little recourse to devote time to fathering while holding a job, BUT society holds norms that a father is permitted to be more absent during the development of a child than her mother is, THEREFORE the impact of the first factor on occupational decisions is fairly muted.

    Women have some recourse to devote time to mothering, but career paths and expectations mean that taking this route may stymie them in the long term, AND society expects that mothers are present figures, THEREFORE the first structural factor actually has a substantive effect on employment outcomes.

    Thanks for your thoughts, both. You've kept me thinking!