Bias in management research

This third is the post on the subject of why the conclusions of management research are less scientific than the authors would have you believe; and it expands on the subject of bias. This influences research findings in two ways – in the perspectives of those people doing the research and the survival-instinct of those they interview.

Confirmation bias

At the root of researcher bias is the author’s desire to find something new and original that will merit publication in esteemed journals. As a result, pet theories receive far more weight than they deserve due to confirmation bias. Findings that support a number of potential hypotheses are described as unilaterally supporting one, to the degree that it can be taken as proven. And in so doing management researchers ignore Karl Popper’s philosophy of science (specifically that no number of positive outcomes at the level of experimental testing can confirm a scientific theory, but a single counterexample is logically decisive) the implication of which is knowledge expands through logical refutation of the invalid, rather than attempts to affirm validity, which can only be inconclusive.

This is a particular risk when the focus is on seeking to codify the success of top-performing companies. These companies have multiple practices that are good, in part because superior profitability allows them to invest in capability enhancement. As such they are fertile ground on which pet theories will thrive, the same companies being trotted out again and again. (As I highlighted in my first post on this topic, I first noticed this when the same three companies were cited as exemplars of two very different practices in the same HBR issue several years ago.) The managers responsible for the particular practice theorized as being the cause of superior performance (and the most obvious people to interview) will naturally agree, thereby compounding the problem of distinguishing between those factors that have had the greatest impact and those for which the causality between profitability and capability is reversed.

Selection bias

If we turn to bias on the part of interviewees, the first distortion is created by their selection. How many people in a company do you need to interview to get an accurate view of the reasons for success over a given period of time – just the CEO(s)? All those holding C-Suite positions during the period? What about below that? How do you balance front-line knowledge of what really happened with a strategic helicopter view? Different people will bring different angles to the collective recollection shaped by the role they or their department played in the success.

Unless a wide range of people at multiple layers are interviewed, the findings will miss the full breadth of viewpoints. But those doing research into marketing practices are likely to interview marketing executives. Even if they wanted to interview more broadly, people in other functions are less likely to cede some of their valuable time to a marketing professor than marketers (whose career prospects would be advanced should their name appear in a marketing text as part of a eulogistic case study). As a result the findings of a particular piece of research are dependent on what the authors are looking for and who they choose or are able to interview.

Access bias

Then there is access bias. Have you ever noticed that despite boasting about ‘research into over 40 companies’ the vast majority of lessons cited tend to be derived from perhaps three or four? Now of course it could be that these were the companies from which there was most to learn. Alternatively it could be the case that these companies were the ones to which the researchers had greatest access. Having been involved in many research programmes for consulting projects, I can assure you that access is by no means equal. Indeed those that you wish to spend most time with are frequently those who have least to spare – the two being intertwined.

Self-assessment bias

Access bias is further compounded by a tendency to exaggerate, particularly when it comes to self-assessed scoring. Allowing a company to score itself on different capabilities or practices is obviously less time consuming than a third party completing an audit, hence a much larger number of companies can be canvassed – the increased sample size enabling quasi-statistical analysis to provide an illusion of rigour.

However the validity of self-assessed scoring has been called into question by a couple of recent studies on the subject of lying. Dana Carney and her research colleagues at Columbia University divided research subjects into two groups – employees and bosses (the latter given larger offices and power to decide employees pay). Half of all subjects were asked to steal a $100 bill which they would be allowed to keep if they could convince an interviewer they had not taken it. Those who had not stolen the money were questioned as well to provide a reference point. During these interviews, the thieves in the boss group showed fewer involuntary signs of dishonesty when trying to convince the interviewer of their innocence than the thieves in the employee group. Indeed, liars with power were almost indistinguishable from those telling the truth, their feelings of power buffering them from the stress of lying, thereby increasing their ability to deceive.1

In another study, Joris Lammers and Diederik Stapel of Tilburg University and Adam Galinsky of Northwestern University also found that those with power lied more than those without. One experiment involved a dice-rolling game, where subjects would roll two ten-sided dice in the privacy of a cubicle (one for tens, one for units) and the score they reported to a lab assistant would determine the number of tickets they would be allocated for a small lottery at the end of the study. Those in the high power group claimed to have rolled, on average, a score of 70, while the average score reported by the low power group was 59. Given that the average should have been 50, those in the low power group were obviously lying a bit, but those in the high power group were exaggerating to the order of around 40%.2

These studies have significant implications for self-assessed scoring as a research technique and studies that draw conclusions based on data collected by that method. At the very least it highlights a significant risk of employees of successful companies feeling that corporate success gives them licence to exaggerate and score their businesses higher on assessment criteria than they would if the business was less profitable and less lauded by external commentators. The implication is that you could give 20 different assessments questionnaires, each seeking to measure a

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different supposed driver of superior corporate performance, and the more successful would score higher themselves higher on each one than the less successful – and probably higher than an independent objective judge would score them – simply because they felt high scores were deserved. At best, finding that success is magically correlated with whatever is being assessed would confirm the presence of multiple confounding variables and that genuine causality cannot be established. At worst, such a finding would suggest that any study involving subjective self-assessment is completely valueless.

Then there is the bias introduced by interviewees’ recollections of events and causality. Memory is more subject to cognitive distortions than we would like to think. As the eminent psychologist John Medina has put it:

“Bona fide memory is a very rare thing on this planet. The reason is that the brain isn’t interested in reality, it’s interested in survival. So it will change the perception of reality to stay in survival mode. Unfortunately a lot of people still believe that the brain is a lot like a recording device – that learning is something like pushing the ‘record’ button and remembering is simply pushing ‘playback’. In the real world of the brain, however, that metaphor is an anachronism. The fact is that the actual moment of learning – the moment of fixing a memory – is so complex that we have little understanding of what happens in our brains in those first fleeting seconds. Long-term memory is even worse. That’s because, much like cement, memory takes a long time to settle into its permanent form. While it’s busy hardening, human memory can very easily be modified, as traces of earlier memories leave their imprint on it. All of which is to say that our understanding of reality is approximate at best.”3

Behavioural scientists have identified four biases that call into question the veracity of such recollections – the belief that they knew all along what they know now (hindsight bias) or that what they think now is what they thought then (self-consistency bias); remembering things as they expected them to be and not necessarily as they actually were (expectancy bias); and attributing success to what was in their control but failure to things outside their control (self-serving bias). The last is particularly important. The recollection of events is biased to portraying ourselves in the best possible light. We overstate both our contribution and capabilities because, as Medina highlights, we have a primal need to survive, even if just economically speaking (managers included).

Need for a behavioural perspective

At the heart of the issue is a failure to learn from the insights gained from behavioural studies over the past thirty years or so. The assumption of rationality – both on the part of the researcher and the researched – continues to prevail. And until that convenient assumption is discarded – and a higher level of scientific rigour prevails – the conclusions of management research should come with a health warning. But I am not holding my breath.

1 People with Power are Better Liars; by Dana Carney, Andy Yap, Brian Lucas, & Pranjal Mehta; Columbia University

2 Power Increases Hypocrisy: Moralizing in Reasoning, Immorality in Behavior; by Joris Lammers, Diederik Stapel and Adam Galinsky; Psychological Science; May 2010

3 The Science of Thinking Smarter, Harvard Business Review, May 2008

Elusive Growth: Why prevailing practices in strategy, marketing and management education are the problem, not the solution, by Jack Springman, will be published in Summer 2011

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About Jack Springman

I am a consultant with experience in business strategy and customer strategy development, customer management and customer service transformation.