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Hazard of ordering that Merlot when the boss does so first extends well beyond the risk of getting tipsy, study finds

July 1, 2010

For more information, contact: Benjamin Haimowitz,

A manager invites a job seeker to a restaurant to discuss his candidacy for a mid-level supervisory position. The manager orders a glass of wine before dinner, and the candidate follows his example and orders wine too. Is the candidate wise to do this, or would a better choice be soda?


Asked their opinion, more than three fourths of a group of MBA students agreed with the job aspirant's choosing wine. Common sense, after all, would seem to dictate following the lead of a prospective boss.


Yet, doing so is probably ill-advised in this case, a new study suggests -- and not because of any inebriating effect from a single glass of Merlot. The problem here, according to research to be presented at the annual meeting of the Academy of Management (Montreal, Aug. 7-10), is what the authors call the "imbibing-idiot  bias," an "implicit association between alcohol and cognitive impairment" -- a connection that turns out to be appreciably stronger than most people are likely to expect.


"Consuming, or merely holding, an alcoholic beverage reduced perceived intelligence [even] in the absence of any actual reduction in cognitive performance," report the study's authors, Scott I. Rick of the University of Michigan and Maurice E. Schweitzer of the University of Pennsylvania.


"Prospective job candidates," they continue, "largely fail to anticipate the imbibing-idiot bias. Candidates in informal interview settings follow the boss's lead, even when the boss chooses to consume alcohol. Our demonstration of a robust imbibing-idiot bias suggests that this form of mimicry is a mistake."


Thus, in one of a series of ingenious experiments probing this bias, Rick and Schweitzer found that 610 middle managers who read the transcript and viewed photos of a hypothetical job interview conducted at a restaurant would be significantly less likely to hire a candidate who ordered wine before dinner than one who ordered soda. This proved to be the case even if the interviewer ordered wine first and even though the texts of the supposed interviews were exactly the same regardless of what the candidate drank. As the authors put it, the "norm of alcohol consumption established by the manager did not protect candidates from the harmful effects of the imbibing-idiot bias."


Given this surprisingly strong effect even when the interviewer took the lead in ordering alcohol, it does not come as a shock that the managers reserved their harshest judgements for hypothetical candidates who ordered wine when their prospective boss ordered soda. In the authors' words, such candidates were "especially punished."


Powerful though the imbibing-idiot bias turns out to be, it is not the result of any generalized disapproval of alcohol, Profs. Rick and Schweitzer find. In an experiment carried out at a campus pub, MBA students were invited to conduct one-on-one interviews in private booths with undergraduates who supposedly needed job-interview practice but who were actually confederates in the research. The interviewers were handed three questions to ask about the younger students' work background, the answers to which the undergraduates had committed to memory. The confederates drank either soda or a non-alcoholic beverage that looked like beer, taking a sip each time the interviewer asked a question but giving the same answers irrespective of what they were drinking.


Although most of the interviewers were drinking beer, they considered candidates to be significantly less worthy of being hired if they appeared to be drinking beer than if they were drinking soda. As in all the professors' experiments, hireability was associated with perceived intelligence, the beer-drinkers being viewed as significantly less intelligent than the soda-drinkers, even though the answers of both groups to interview questions were exactly the same. In contrast, in this experiment and others, a candidate's beverage did not influence ratings for likeability, honesty, or genuineness.


In sum, "the mildly intoxicated bosses were not globally evaluating candidates who drink alcohol negatively. Instead, alcohol consumption by candidates selectively influenced their perceived intelligence and hireability."


The power of this influence may have emerged most strikingly in another experiment by the professors in which 176 adults were randomly assigned to evaluate either six alcohol-related print ads or six print ads for various supermarket items. When that task was completed, participants were shown a photograph of a young man and asked for their "gut reaction" to it: how did they rate the subject, on a scale of one to seven, in terms of intelligence and likeability?


Remarkably, participants rated the photo subject as less intelligent (but not less likeable) after evaluating the alcohol ads than they did after assessing the neutral ads, with a less than five percent likelihood that this difference was due to chance. In other words, "implicitly priming the concept of alcohol caused observers to view targets holding no beverage at all as less intelligent."


What accounts for the power of the imbibing idiot-bias? Asked if the effect might have been less pronounced in the past, Prof. Rick speculates that it might well have been, that developments such as advertising bans on alcoholic beverages, campaigns against drunk driving, and changes in legal drinking ages might account, at least in part, for the strong negative associations between alcohol and intelligence that emerge in the experiments. Without offering any judgment on such developments, the professors observe that their findings have relevance beyond job-seeking and that "many individuals seeking to manage impressions (e.g., sales representatives, potential business partners, aspiring politicians) may make mistakes when choosing whether or not to consume alcohol."


As for the study's special contribution, they summarize it thus: "Consuming alcohol can diminish perceived intelligence even when it has no influence on actual performance. Unfortunately, people in a position to be judged largely fail to anticipate the bias. Taken together, the results suggest that what we drink may say more about us than we think."


The study, entitled "The Imbibing-Idiot Bias: Merely Holding an Alcoholic Beverage Can Be Hazardous to Your (Perceived) Intelligence," will be as among several thousand research reports at the Academy of Management annual meeting, to be held in Montreal from August 7 to 10th.  Founded in 1936, the Academy is the largest organization in the world devoted to management research and teaching. It has more than 19,000 members in 102 countries, including about 11,000 in the United States. This year's annual meeting will draw more than 9,000 scholars and practitioners for sessions on a host of subjects relating to business strategy, corporate organization and investment, the workplace, technology development, and other management-related topics.

Media Coverage:
Financial Times. Raise a Glass for Lust and Liquor at Work. (Monday, August 16, 2010).
Reuters. Advice to US Job-Seekers: Drop the Merlot. (Monday, August 09, 2010).
Scientific American MIND. Beware Your Beverage. (Tuesday, November 09, 2010).
The Globe & Mail. Do you drink? Dolt. (Monday, November 08, 2010).
The Globe & Mail. In job interviews what you drink may be seen as how you think. (Friday, July 30, 2010).
Toronto Star. Don't Drink, Even if the Boss Does. (Saturday, August 14, 2010).
United Press International. Consumer Corner: Drinking and informal job interviews don't mix. (Sunday, August 29, 2010).

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