Danny Hinton (Aston Business School) presented another fascinating foray into racial bias in selection tests, an area where two positions dominate the debate. ‘Hereditarians’ insist that test difference reflect some real ability difference due to genetic variation, whereas the ‘culture-only’ view charges that tests are not culture fair in terms of their content or processes. ‘Culture-only’ proponents point out that the gap between cultures has closed over the decades, suggesting a non-genetic origin.
Hinton's sophisticated theory charts a slightly different course. He suggests that however culture-fair test content may become, we may still see racial differences. However, these don't reflect innate differences, but rather another cultural layer. This is related to how people approach tests: how familiar they are with completing them, and how anxious they feel about them.
His ongoing research uses IRT techniques to understand how people perform on tests given their true ability – how they ‘deserved’ to do. The data so far suggests a chain of influence where higher social status leads to test-taking familiarity, which influences test-taking style, leading to some people doing better than others even when they have the same level of ability. As we know that in most societies race and class factors are highly interlinked, it looks very possible that this can explain one component of racial differences on test performance, and give us some tools to break this: increasing accessibility of ability tests across society.
I also found fascinating Nicola Payne and Gail Kinman's presentation on work-life factors in the fire service, specifically because of the way it foregrounded work-life enhancement. We hear a lot about how work can disrupt home-life and vice versa, but this study (a collaboration between Middlesex and the University of Bedfordshire) of around 200 staff in three fire services showed that fire fighters who identified their work as something that gave sense to their home life reported higher work wellbeing. And those who saw their home life as enhancing their work had better quality of sleep.
Payne and Kinman also found disruptive effects, but the benefits of enhancement were stronger than the penalty of conflict. Work can provide skills, status, and psychological energy that feed into how you are at home, and the support and fun in a family can make you a better worker. These enhancement effects have been documented in other samples but it's useful to be reminded of the positive potential of the multiple roles we can hold in life
Finally, Rob Bailey and Tatiana Gulko of OPP took us on a whistle-stop tour of various ways in which a lack of emotional stability presents difficulties. One data set of over 1,200 people suggested that individuals whose personality profile includes a lower emotional stability tended to see themselves as unluckier, unhappier, less healthy, and more prone to taking time off. A study looking at 4,500 couples suggested that satisfaction with your romantic partner is lower if they are less emotionally stable. And a smaller study suggested that less emotionally stable people are also likely to feel more helpless, more defenceless, and less powerful in general.
As always, the conference was a feast of ideas, investigation, and debate. Plenty of things to tackle in the year to come.