Unintended Consequences: Why Evidence Matters

Posted: Sun, 21 August 2011 | permalink | 2 Comments

If you were trying to get rid of hiring discrimination (on grounds irrelevant to the ability to do the job), you’d think a good way to do it would be to reduce the ability of the hiring manager to discriminate, by restricting their access to irrelevant (but possibly prejudicial) information. It’s certainly what I might come up with as an early idea in a brainstorming session.

I’m not alone: France had this same idea, and gave it a go, by passing a law requiring companies to anonymise resumes before they got to any decision makers.

So far, so average. But rather than just coming up with an idea and inflicting it on everyone by a blanket law, they did what should be done with all new ideas: they trialled it (with 50 large corporations, according to the report) before making it universal, to make sure that the theory matched reality. Then, after giving it a good shake, they examined the evidence, and found that the idea had some unintended consequences:

Applicants with foreign names, or who lived in under privileged areas were found to be less likely to be called in for an interview without the listing of their name and address. Researchers reasoned that this was because employers and recruiters made allowances for subpar presentation or limited French speaking if their performance could be explained by deprivation or foreign birth.

The icing on the cake is that now the evidence is in, they’re now planning on making it “optional” (I’m not sure how that’s different from killing it entirely, but I guess it’s worth the same in the end).

So we’ve got the quinella of decision-making awesome:

Far too often, we get far too attached to our ideas, and don’t let them go when reality doesn’t fit our preconceptions. Kudos to the people involved in this idea for not letting their egos get in the way of good government. Let it be an object lesson for us all.


From: Np237
2011-08-23 19:13

You’re giving way too much credit to the French government for that. The truth is not as awesome: the government didn’t want of any anti-discrimination measures to begin with, so they made this an experiment. The experiment being a failure came as a good surprise for them, since they don’t have to do anything.

On the long term, this will have the effect you describe though. It is very likely that the socialist party, who put the generalisation of anonymous CVs in its program, will rescind it after seeing this result.

From: Bogdan
2012-07-23 03:06

While Np237 is probably right about this experiment happening for other reasons than the pursuit of scientific knowledge about discrimination, the idea of “experimental lawmaking” would appear to be very useful in the “society benefits” sense even when used for (mostly) the wrong reasons.

A proposal for an experiment should be much harder to block politically than a direct proposal for policy. After a successful trial, opposition to the policy will usually have more trouble. After a failed trial, you can try again later (either wait for people to forget, or for something to change, or for a better idea), and you can point to the science if anyone accuses you of flip-flopping, so there’s less risk to paint yourself into a politics corner. And, of course, there’s a lot of potential to meddle and fudge results. (Big Pharma plays a lot of games with medical trials, and since Big Money is involved, you just know the politicians must have seen the techniques.)

Scientifically and socially it might not be a silver bullet, but politically it seems that trials should be enormously useful. I wonder why they’re not used almost all the time by politicians almost everywhere. I keep playing scenarios in my head, from different political points of view, and basically the only reasons I can find not to try a trial is (a) you’re pretty sure you can beat the opposition anyway or (b) you don’t really want to change anything ever.

I.e., either you don’t (politically) need to convince anyone to cooperate, or you just want to keep the status quo. Yet I see deadlocks in Congress and parliaments almost everywhere, but very few proposals for trials.

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