Affirmative action is needed to get the best candidates, psychologist says

April 27, 2012 By Brooke Donald, Stanford University

The researchers argue that decision makers need affirmative action to make meritocratic decisions - to get the best candidates. Credit: Chris Schmidt / iStock
( -- When it comes to affirmative action, the argument usually focuses on diversity. Promoting diversity, the Supreme Court ruled in 2003, can justify taking race into account.

But some people say this leads to the of less qualified candidates over better ones and creates a devil's choice between diversity and merit.

Not so, says Stanford psychologist Greg Walton. Diversity and meritocracy are not always at odds.

In fact, sometimes it is only by taking race and gender into account that schools and employers can admit and hire the best candidates, Walton argues in a paper slated for publication in the journal and Policy Review with co-authors Steven J. Spencer of the University of Waterloo and Sam Erman of Harvard University.

Walton, an assistant professor of psychology, and Spencer plan to present their findings to the Supreme Court in an amicus brief in Fisher v. University of Texas, a case the justices are scheduled to hear next fall and that many court watchers believe threatens to upend affirmative action. (Supreme Court rules bar Erman, who was a recent clerk, from participating in the brief.)

"People have argued that affirmative action is consistent or is not consistent with meritocracy," Walton said. "Our argument is not that it's consistent or inconsistent. Our argument is that you need affirmative action to make meritocratic decisions – to get the best candidates."

The researchers say that people often assume that measures of merit like grades and test scores are unbiased – that they reflect the same level of ability and potential for all students.

Under this assumption, when an ethnic-minority student and a non-minority student have the same high school grades, they probably have the same level of ability and are likely to do equally well in college. When a woman and a man have the same score on a math test, it's assumed they have the same level of math ability.

The problem is that common school and testing environments create a different psychological experience for different students. This systematically disadvantages negatively stereotyped ethnic minority students like African Americans and Hispanic Americans, as well as girls and women in math and science.

"When people perform in standard school settings, they are often aware of negative stereotypes about their group," Walton says. "Those stereotypes act like a psychological headwind – they cause people to perform worse. If you base your evaluation of candidates just on performance in settings that are biased, you end up discriminating."

The conclusion comes out of research on what is called – the worry people have when they risk confirming a negative stereotype about their group. That worry prevents people from performing as well as they can, hundreds of studies have found. 

As a consequence, Walton says, "Grades and test scores assessed in standard school settings underestimate the intellectual ability of students from negatively stereotyped groups and their potential to perform well in future settings."

Walton gives an example of how stereotype threat relates to preferences in admissions or hiring.

A woman and a man each apply to an elite engineering program, he says. The man has slightly better SAT math scores than the woman. He gets accepted to the program, but she does not.

"If stereotype threat on the SAT undermined the woman's performance and as a consequence caused her SAT score to underestimate her potential, then by not taking that bias into account, you have effectively discriminated against the woman," Walton says.

Walton and his colleagues argue that schools need to take affirmative steps to level the playing field and to make meritocratic decisions. If the SAT underestimates women's math ability or the ability of African American students, taking this into account will help schools both admit better candidates and more diverse ones.

While courts have ruled that diversity justifies taking race into account in admissions decisions, justices have not considered meritocracy as a reason for sorting by race.

"Our argument is that it is only by considering race that you can make meritocratic decisions," Walton says. "It's a separate argument from the diversity argument."

Walton's research provides the justices with another reason for upholding affirmative action.

But confronting legal questions is only part of the issue.

Walton says remedies need to be found in policy, as well. Environments need to be created that are fair and allow people to do well.

"The first step is for organizations to fix their own houses," he says.

Testing officials should look at how they administer tests and ask what they can do to mitigate the psychological threats that are present in their settings that cause people to do poorly, Walton says.

Schools and employers, he continues, should look into their own internal environments and ask how they can make those environments safe and secure so everyone can do well and stereotypes are off the table.

But if stereotype threat was present in a prior environment, hiring and admissions decisions need to take that into account.

"In taking affirmative steps," Walton, Spencer and Erman write, "organizations can promote meritocracy and diversity at once."

Explore further: Psychological headwind keeps women, minorities from sprinting ahead of their peers, study finds

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1.3 / 5 (14) Apr 27, 2012
Has anyone seen Obama's grades from Columbia and Harvard?

BTW, thanks to AA, a PhD botanist was motivated to become a wealthy conservative talk show host and author instead of a professor at Berkley.
2.5 / 5 (8) Apr 28, 2012
OK how about the other side of the coin. When you are a white male and surrounded by people that are not white and you are at all intelligent you become the target for over competition which leads to many other things. Why are most serial killers white?
Also name a job that a young man can get that can as much per hour as a female can earn of the same age doing pr0n?
Also I remember reading years ago this AA thing keeps Asians out of colleges that they deserve to be in.
Also have you ever been in a black dominant school as a white and tried to leave? You can't, my mom tried when I was in 8th grade.
Do you understand the concept of forced friendship? Maybe I don't like you because you're ugly the same as I would dislike someone of "my own" race but what happens is the "guilty of racism until proven innocent" hostile atmosphere gets constantly created and also a foreign language is constantly used in order to create a closed group which helps itself and excludes you purposely.
4 / 5 (3) Apr 28, 2012
Maybe a good thing to teach kids that life is unfair and to help them be prepared with strategies to deal with it. Other than race or sex, there is still a long list of attributes that could be used as an excuse for discrimination. Quantifying "discrimination" isn't easy. And even if it were, it wouldn't be the same a few years from now.
1.9 / 5 (13) Apr 28, 2012
I guess if you try hard enough, you can justify racism in multiple ways. Because thats what affirmative action is.
1.7 / 5 (17) Apr 28, 2012
"The ultimate irony is that many of those who publicly promote or accept the prevailing party line on race do not themselves accept it privately. A few years ago, when a faculty vote on affirmative action was proposed at the University of California at Berkeley, there was a fierce disagreement as to whether that vote should be taken by secret ballot or at an open faculty meeting."
"In short, hypocrisy is the norm in discussions of race -- and not just at Berkeley. Moreover, it is the norm among blacks as well as whites."
"As for whites, author Harry Stein says that many white liberals "give blacks a pass on behaviors and attitudes they would regard as unacceptable and even abhorrent in their own kind." "
1.8 / 5 (15) Apr 28, 2012
If I was an American, I would have come to the conclusion, after having read this article, that Mr. Greg Walton and his colleagues and their meritocracy foolishness coupled with their "stereotype threat" nonsense, will be the death of the American spirit. Their war with the white man is out in the open now and these pseudo-psychologists will have their way since nobody wishes to be named as a racist and bigot. The supreme court justices will bow to Walton and do his bidding, in the justification of preservation of the diversity. It is inevitable that America goes down with a whimper. American mediocrity is on the rise due to such "academics". I say this with mixed feelings. I think of the Jews who are extremely stereotyped, and yet, they excel in science, mathematics, and other disciplines.
This stupidity would never happen in my country. But, as I have said in another thread, "we will not have to bury you, you Americans are burying yourselves".
1.7 / 5 (12) Apr 29, 2012
forcing diversity is racism at its best.
instead of selecting by personality or competence you are selecting by race... (you are here cause we need a black guy)

divide and conquer.
1.7 / 5 (11) Apr 29, 2012
What about the other side of "stereotype threat": the fear people from certain groups (e.g. whites and Asians) have that they will fail to live up to their groups' high expectations? Has anyone ever looked into the damaging effects that might have on the performance of whites and Asians in mathematics, for example?
2.3 / 5 (3) Apr 30, 2012
This article is just one more reason that I won't pay for my children to attend such ridiculous schools. Stanford is supposed to be one of the best schools in the U.S. / World. Since they allow such drivel from their employees to be published, the value of the education they provide is no more than that of a diploma farm.
not rated yet Apr 30, 2012
Republicans and racists, hand in hand.

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