Educational institutions and employers have come to embrace the value of diversity in a student body or a workforce and have poured considerable energy into developing policies to level the playing field for selection. But there’s often a gap between official policies and practices, according to Chicago Booth PhD student David Munguia Gomez and Booth’s Emma Levine.

The gap is evident in the mismatch between US residents’ stated beliefs and their willingness to back measures to advance those beliefs. In the mid-1990s, half of US residents said they supported affirmative action for women and members of historically underrepresented racial groups, according to the researchers, who cite polls from NBC News and the Wall Street Journal. However, a 1997 poll from CBS News and the New York Times indicated that only 34 percent of people said it was a good idea to hire a woman over an equally qualified man, and only 20 percent said a college should deliberately pick a Black student over an equally qualified white student.

Little has changed over the past quarter century. The contradiction between beliefs and actions has become a persistent organizational problem that the researchers call “the policy-people gap.” It describes the situation in which decision makers support policies that would favor one type of applicant but choose a different type of applicant in making individual choices.

Munguia Gomez and Levine examined the policy-people gap in the contexts of college admissions and workplace hiring, surveying college admissions officers, employees in the technology industry, and everyday people. They find that when choosing between selection policies, decision makers are more likely to favor disadvantaged applicants—but when choosing between specific individuals, they tend to choose the more advantaged applicants. The contradiction exists at least in part because people prioritize different standards of fairness when thinking about policies compared with thinking about individuals, they write.

Intentions differ from actions

In an experiment, participants preferred a college admissions policy that favored a lower-income applicant with lower test scores over a higher-scoring, higher-income applicant. However, when asked to choose between the two applicants, most selected the one with higher test scores. 

In one of 19 studies, Munguia Gomez and Levine divided 802 online participants into two groups. They asked participants in one group to choose between two policies that would affect which of two final candidates would be selected for college admission. Participants in the other group simply chose between the two people. Essentially, both groups were making the same choice between college applicants, but one group thought about the decision in terms of a broader policy.

Setting the experiment up this way allowed Munguia Gomez and Levine to test their theory that people’s decisions reflect different fairness standards. When choosing between policies, people apply a “macrojustice” standard of fairness or justice, and in picking between individuals, they use a “microjustice” standard.

“Microjustice is what’s fair to individuals,” Munguia Gomez says, explaining that this means establishing a correspondence between individuals’ inputs, such as their grades and test scores, and an output, such as admission to college. This is a standard of fairness that’s focused on looking at individuals’ characteristics to determine what they ought to get. In contrast, macrojustice means what is fair in the aggregate—that is, how spots for college or jobs are distributed across people, such as those from advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds. This standard of fairness is concerned with the overall distributions of opportunities and rewards in organizations and society, such as whether they are distributed equally between groups or whether a minimum for a group is reached.

These two ways of making admissions decisions, Munguia Gomez says, can create a tension because standardized test scores correlate with incomes. So if a college prioritized admissions only on the basis of test scores, as microjustice would suggest, the incoming class would be skewed toward the socioeconomically advantaged. This result would clash with people’s desire for equality and diversity, reflecting their macrojustice concerns.

To mimic this tension, the two applicants in Munguia Gomez and Levine’s study scenario represented a socioeconomically advantaged person with higher test scores and a socioeconomically disadvantaged person with lower scores. Participants choosing between the individuals picked the higher-scoring, higher-income student 56 percent of the time, while those choosing between policies did so only 45 percent of the time. What’s more, almost two-thirds of participants picking between specific individuals indicated that it was fairer to choose the higher-scoring, higher-income student, far more than the 38 percent who indicated the same when deciding between policies.

Munguia Gomez and Levine also asked a group of participants to make the same kind of choice but only after hearing about the difference between microjustice and macrojustice—and after being asked to prioritize macrojustice. In this case, the gap between policy choices and people choices was significantly narrower: more participants selected the disadvantaged applicant in their individual decision, bringing it in line with their policy decision. The implication, says Munguia Gomez, is that organizations should recognize that standards of fairness applied to policies and individuals won’t necessarily line up—and should guide decision makers to prioritize the standard that aligns with their goals.

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