May 01, 2014

Interpreting Research Results: Probabilities, Not Certainties

RaskoffBy Sally Raskoff

Have you heard some research results reported lately? Did they mention that some people “are” something more than others rather than some people are “more likely” than others to do or be that something?

When academic research results are reported in the press, we must take care to ensure that the findings are interpreted accurately.

Rarely (if ever) in research will all in one group exhibit the same behavior or opinion. There really are no findings  that are true 100 percent of the time; there are always variations when it comes to actual human beings.

Yes, there are patterns that we can identify. Statistically significant findings can show that groups may have important differences between them,  differences that we should notice and deal with.

However, those differences do not mean that everyone in that group is that way and that no one in another group can be that way. Unfortunately, when research is discussed in the media, and even in the published research itself, the findings may be presented in just that manner, sounding as if all people in some group do things differently than those in another group.

Recently, this report shared some interesting results from studies by business professors Laura Kray and Jessica Kennedy on gender and work, specifically business school and ethics. This research reports that women and men behave differently when faced with ethical choices in business. Kray mentioned to NPR that “men tend to have more lenient standards than women” among other findings.

I found an original research report on this study,  which will soon be published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science. Note that the researcher said men “tend” to do something, not that they universally do something.

The discussion continued and listeners (or readers) might easily assume by the end of the new story that men are unethical and women are incapable of being unethical.Men are from unethical Martians, Women are ethical Venusians? Scientifically, no.

How we discuss research findings, especially with a public audience, is so important. Research findings should be discussed as this researcher did, with words like “tend to” or “more likely” and “less likely” rather than “are” or “are not.”

If the news media continues to report such qualifications with the findings then it may be easier to avoid reinforcing stereotypes and help people realize how science works.

When we hear that “men are more unethical than women” this reinforces what we have already been socialized to “know” about men and women. On the other hand, if we hear that “men are more likely to be more unethical than women”- especially in specific situations, we are invited to understand that something other than gender is responsible for these patterns.

Historically, some societies, including our own, view women as the moral center of society because of their supposed purity, nurturing abilities, and other feminine qualities. Are all women really bastions of morality, purity, nurturing, and other feminine qualities? No. We expect them to be, due to the social norms that create and maintain those expectations and which society reinforces.

Science works by systematic testing of concepts and replication. No one study is definitive. The theories must be tested over and over again to ensure we are doing research well and without bias.

I’m also concerned about the larger picture here. This report mentioned that women are more likely than men to see ethical decisions as ethical decisions yet men are more likely to see them as business decisions, thus making it easier to make unethical decisions if those decisions will leads to profits.

This report is about the gender gaps in business school and, by extension in the business world.  Individual beliefs and behaviors are important to understand some of those dynamics but the structural and societal issues that serve as context are equally as important.

Hearing about this research and assuming that men can behave unethically more than women suggests that if women can act more unethically -- and those actions make money -- then they could be more successful in business.

I have three reactions to this conclusion.

First, the fact that unethical decisions are more likely to lead to making money is problematic. They may lead to short terms profits but won’t those decisions ultimately be discovered and the lawsuits may put a ding in those profits. Not to mention the obvious ethical issues. (Oh, yeah, I’m a woman, I would say that.)

Second, we equate masculine traits with business success. We leave unanswered whether any other type of leadership or business skills would generate profit. But then, isn’t capitalism itself linked to those masculine traits?

Third, what about the women who do suggest that people make unethical decisions? They break the pattern. Are their decisions noted and followed? Or are their decisions ignored? There are large dynamics at stake here. Due to our gendered social norms, especially in business, women who do play the game as it is defined, are acting out of turn and out of place. They may either get accepted as a token player who can move up the ladder or they get displaced and ignored as unworthy players.

Humans and human societies are complex. Research can and must illuminate parts of our realities. We can learn from them if we interpret and use the findings appropriately.

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