Appearance Bias: It’s what’s in the wrapper that counts?

August 13, 2007

An Associated Press article by Lindsey Tanner reports that McDonald’s wrapper tricks kids’ taste buds:

Anything made by McDonald’s tastes better, preschoolers said in a study that powerfully demonstrates how advertising can trick the taste buds of young children.

Even carrots, milk and apple juice tasted better to the kids if it was wrapped in the familiar packaging of the Golden Arches.

The study had youngsters sample identical McDonald’s foods in name-brand or unmarked wrappers. The unmarked foods always lost the taste test.

This doesn’t surprise me or others one bit. The Evil Hr Lady take is that the wrapper perception created by titles pervades corporate decision-making. The result is that good ideas in the wrong wrappers don’t get their just due.  I took a different direction.  When I saw the same article, I thought of appearance bias.

We are about due for another round of surveys or articles about how good looking people get better jobs, raises, and service for no other reason then they are attractive. Some older articles make this point like CNBC’s Hidden Camera investigation entitled "Face Value", Catherine Kaputa’s Why Attractive People Get Paid More and What You Can Do About It, or Kate Lorenz’s Do Pretty People Earn More?

To use a cliché, perceptions are reality. The concept of evaluating people and their ideas on their merits is intellectually unassailable. However, if it were universally practiced, society wouldn’t need laws against discrimination and job bias. Discrimination is, at least partially, a bias based on the wrapper, rather than the content. Certainly, "unattractive" is not a protected class. However, unattractive can be a code word for appearance prejudices that are legally prohibited such as those based on race, sex, national origin, age, and disability.

No where is the difference between the wrapper and its contents more important than in the defense of a discrimination claim. TheMcDonnell Douglas Test uses a three step legal standard for evaluating such claims. In the first step, the employee/applicant must show they are in a protected class, are qualified for a job and suffered some adverse employment action. In the second step, the employer must that it had a legitimate business reason for its decision. In the third step, the employee may show that the employer’s "reason" is a pretext for discrimination.

Don’t let the McDonald’s/kid’s eating habits analogy trivialize my point, employment decisions must be based on content and qualifications. When evaluation of the content involves subjective assessments make sure that decisions aren’t influenced by stereotypes or biases resulting from perceptions.  Interviewers should be trained to appreciate the legal importance of job content in their evaluations of candidates.  Everyone should assess the role of their own hidden biases and their impact on workplace decisions.