Stereotype Threat and Police Recruitment

From an interview on the World Economic Forum site (which is surprisingly good). A description of how a small change to an invitation email increased pass rates on police recruitment exam:

Small, contextual factors can have impacts on people’s performance. In this particular case, there is literature to suggest that exams for particular groups might be seen as a situation where they are less likely to perform at their best. We ran a trial where there was a control group that got the usual email, which was sort of, “Dear Cade, you’ve passed through to the next stage of the recruitment process. We would like you to take this test please. Click here.” Then for another randomly selected group of people, we sent them the same email but changed two things. We made the email slightly friendlier in its tone and added a line that said, “Take two minutes before you do the test to have a think about what becoming a police officer might mean to you and your community.” This was about bringing in this concept of you are part of this process, you are part of the community and becoming a police officer is part of that — trying to break down the barrier that they are not of the police force because it doesn’t look like them.


Interestingly, if you were a white candidate, the email had no impact on your pass rate. Sixty percent of white candidates were likely to pass in either condition. But interestingly, it basically closed the attainment gap between white and nonwhite candidates. It increased by 50% their chance of passing that test, just by adding that line and changing the email format. That was an early piece of work that reminded us of the thousands of ways that we could be re-thinking recruitment practices to influence the kind of social outcomes we care about.

There’s a lot to take away from this. The finding they have applied here originally comes from educational research, and the obvious and most important parallel is in how we approach our students in higher education. How often do we provide the sort of positive and supportive environment our at-risk students need?

The larger pattern I see here with design is just how much small things matter. There’s a reason why no major extant community uses out-of-the-box software. If you’re Reddit, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc. and you want to encourage participation, or minimize trolling, or reduce hate speech you have to have control of the end-to-end experience. Labeling something a “like” will produce one sort of community, and labeling it “favorite” will produce another.

We get hung up on “ease-of-use” in software, as if that was the only dimension to judge it. But social software architectures must be judged not on ease of use, but on the communities and behaviors they create, from the invite email to the labels on the buttons. If one sentence can make this much difference, imagine what damage your UI choices might be doing to your community.

BTW — I write a lot of stuff like this over the day as I process stuff on Wikity (though it’s usually shorter). It’s all there, and you might find something interesting. I post this here because it is just too important to leave on my unread wiki, but it’s only on wiki that you’ll see the connection to the Analytics of Empathy or Reducing Abuse on Twitter.

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