One of the most famous axioms in social psychology is what's sometimes called "Lewin's equation" (after the famous psychologist Kurt Lewin): behavior is a function of both the person and the environment. This equation is good to keep in mind when looking at all kinds of human behavior, including recruitment and assessment.
Research presented in the May 2008 issue of Journal of Applied Social Psychology addresses this equation. Let's take a look at it and see if helps us answer an age-old question: What's more important--the observer or what's being observed?
Tell me if this situation sounds familiar. A hiring manager insists on hiring someone based on something they saw in the person's resume (e.g., the candidate graduated from a particular college), even though the person did not do well on a structured, validated assessment. The first study shows that HR is not immune to this phenomenon. In it, HR managers were presented with two types of information about a candidate: preliminary information (like a resume) and performance on an assessment center. The managers were then asked to rate the candidate. Results? Managers were unable to exclude the preliminary information, even though they had better information (the assessment center results) in front of them.
The second article looks at the legitimacy perceptions of promotion decisions and how they relate to information on deservedness (candidate performance) and entitlement (affirmative action). Participants felt that both deservedness and entitlement were related to legitimacy, but there was a gender effect--female participants felt increased resentment when the male candidate was promoted.
The third article is a fascinating take on how people how people perceive discrimination. Specifically, the authors looked at ambiguous situations and the impact of how "prototypical" the person doing the discriminating is. What they found was that the amount of control the perceiver felt they had over discrimination in their lives moderated the influence of the prototype effect. In other words, whether a white male (the prototype) was acting in a discriminatory fashion depended a great deal on the perceiver. Like research on stress, control was found here to have a significant effect on perceptions.
So given these three articles, what's more important--the observer or what's being observed? The research above gives us a clear answer, and one that validates the wisdom of Kurt Lewin: both.