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Judging our capacity to change
Organisational psychology is labouring under the illusion that people can be changed easily. That was Timothy Judge's (University of Notre Dame) message in a polemical keynote at the Division of Occupational Psychology's Annual Conference in Stratford, in which he argued the case for the power of nature over nurture.
Whether it's rates of desirable behaviours, like eating a healthy diet, or frowned-upon activities, like drug use and crime, Judge said dozens of studies featuring tens of thousands of twin pairs had shown the dominant influence of genetic inheritance over environmental factors.
Take people's body-mass index (BMI): a 2008 study of 10,556 Finnish twins found that shared genes accounted for 81 per cent of the variance in BMI, compared with just 5.5 per cent of shared environmental factors. Or consider aggressive antisocial behaviour: a Swedish study of 1480 twin pairs found that shared genes accounted for 60 per cent of the variance in these behaviours compared with a 15 per cent contribution from shared environmental factors.
'The ratio of genes explaining behaviour to the environment explaining behaviour isn't just somewhat stronger, it's overwhelmingly stronger,' Judge said. He then turned to three momentous life events to show that these too have a limited effect on people's mood and behaviour: the experience of sexual abuse in childhood, winning the lottery and marriage. To take the first, Jude said a meta-analysis in 1998 had shown that this ordeal has only small effects on anxiety and depression and other negative outcomes later in life. 'You may say that this is insane, that it doesn't make sense,' Judge said. 'I'll give you that it doesn't match our prior expectations. But what you have to ask yourself is - if these facts are true, then why?'
The evidence for winning the lottery and marriage is in the same mould, Judge said. Happiness is left unchanged by a big win, and whilst newly married couples enjoy a large blip in their happiness, this tails off over the years. Widowhood makes an even larger impact on (un)happiness, but again, recovery takes place nearly back to baseline.
If the psychological effects of profound experiences are limited, Judge asked, then what about the impact of occupational psychology interventions? A 2007 test of an intervention for burn-out found a short-term benefit, but by the study end the difference between the treatment group and controls was actually smaller than it had been at the study start. Or consider a 2004 study by Judge and a colleague that looked at a self-efficacy intervention - again, there was a benefit at first, but three months later 'virtually nothing', even though ongoing booster interventions had been used.
Judge said his message has profound implications for management practice. 'Too often we standardise,' he said. 'But everyone isn't alike and it's not as easy for all of us to change as our policies and practices assume.' One answer, Judge said, is to invest more in selection, and to do so with a more long-term view of whether the type of job and organisational culture fits who candidates are. Alternatively, consider altering the job to fit the person, and recognise the importance of a focus on people's strengths, in the vein of positive psychology. 'Maybe we should accept people better for who they are,' Judge concluded, 'and think a little bit less about changing them.'
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