Fashion vs. Passion: The Perils of Fad Hiring

Back in the 1950s, there was a time when every kid had a hoola hoop. If you didn’t, you were, well, nobody. A few years later, the fad was yo-yo’s. Everyone just had to have a yo-yo. If you didn’t, unbespeakable things would happen to you, at least in your social circle. Today scooters are the rage, although the fad has probably peaked and chances are that a lot of them are in dry dock in garages and basements, never to be used again. Part peer pressure, part marketing, one thing these and other fads have in common is that they seemingly came out of nowhere, suddenly were everywhere, and then died out as quickly as they appeared, for the most part forgotten except for the occasional nostalgic recollection.

Many of us in science believe we are non-conformists and therefore are immune to the fad-purchasing mentality, which focuses on the short term rather than long term perspective. Yet, there may be some cancellation principle at work, whereby when one puts a bunch of nonconformists together into a field, their nonconformities somehow cancel each other out. Because, as Thomas Kuhn (1970) argued, science seems to survive, to a large extent, on the kind of conformity many of its practitioners thought they had rejected.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the area of hiring new faculty, where we can be suckers for temporarily “hot” areas or approaches. Research areas or approaches become hot for any of a number of reasons: when they seem to be yielding exciting new findings, when funding in those areas is a national priority, when the areas or approaches seem to bring us closer to our image of what a natural science should be and thus make us feel more like our “hard-science” colleagues; when they fit a societal Zeitgeist, and so forth. There then is pressure to hire people in these areas or use these approaches to obtain the highest possible ratings in reports such as those produced by the National Academy of Sciences or U.S. News and World Report, to obtain funding for the department; to compete for the best graduate students, and generally to “keep up with the Joneses.”

Eventually, the hot areas and approaches cool off – when funding priorities change, when we realize that there is more to psychology than emulating our colleagues in other fields, when the societal Zeitgeist changes (as it inevitably does), or when the Joneses are doing something else. Most of all, though, we eventually realize that the questions being addressed or the ways that they are being addressed are not providing the answers we had hoped for.

Obviously, there are near-term advantages to picking people in hot areas or using hot approaches. The work might attract more research funding; the work’s chances of being published may be slightly better; and one will wish to train new generations of students in hot areas or using hot approaches so that the students will be prepared for where the field seems to be going and so they will be competitive in the job market. But there are some long-term considerations to keep in mind:

Short-term appeal versus long-term payoff. The first risk is that the people who are hired for the reasons outlined above will not look nearly as attractive in the long run as they do in the short run because the field that they are working on may dry up, potentially leaving them as tomorrow’s dinosaurs. For example, when I was in graduate school, semantic memory was a very fashionable thing to study. But a few years later, it was history. Just a few years ago, connectionism was very much an “in thing.” Today, it maintains a robust army of followers, but does not have quite the zip of a few years back. A hire that at one time may appear to be in the area may later appear to be in that area – an area that no longer is au courant.

Quality of work. Suppose you have a choice between two candidates for a job opening, one in the 90th percentile of her field and the other in the 60th percentile. All other things being equal, you will probably go for the one in the 90th percentile. But all other things are never quite equal. Suppose the 60th percentile candidate is in a hot area (e.g., cognitive neuroscience) and the other in a “cooler” area (e.g., non-biological study of episodic memory). Which one will you pick?

I suspect many departments will unhesitatingly choose the candidate in the hot area. But does it make sense to hire someone in, say, the 60th percentile of an area that is “in,” when a department can hire someone in the 90th percentile of a viable area that is not representative of a current fad? The department gets a weaker candidate doing weaker work, merely for the sake of hiring in a given area.

Encouraging career choices on the basis of fashion rather than passion. Many students go where the jobs are. If job openings are largely a function of current fashions, then students are likely to want to specialize in these fashions. Areas of, or approaches to, research that are important to the field may be neglected. And areas or approaches that deserve some but not all that attention may get more work done in them than they merit. Meanwhile, students are studying not what they really want to study, but what they believe they should study to get a job. Or they are using methods not because the methods are most suitable to the problem being studied, but because those methods have current cachet. As a result, the students do not optimize their own creative potential, because they are not working in an area that poses the psychological problems that interest them most. People do their most creative work in the areas they care most about (Sternberg & Lubart, 1995). But will we let them pursue their passions, or will we guide them to follow fads?

Fueling what may be a foolish fad. In 2001, the United States experienced a painful crash. The crash caused a severe dislocation in the U.S. economy and also in many people’s future plans. Why did so few people see it coming? Perhaps one could forgive the young dot.commers who had not experienced before the ups and downs of the business cycle. But many of the people who were caught short were older, experienced investors who probably should have known better. Employers kept hiring people for whom there was a short-term, but not long-term, demand, and then later laid off many of them.

Similarly, in academic psychology, older, more experienced psychologists should recognize that trends are, in fact, trends. They come and they go. It is embarrassing to the field of psychology, as it was in the technology field, when senior people in the field act as though a fad never will end. I recall being at an international conference in the 1970s where a group was discussing serial information-processing models of cognitive functioning, and the computer simulations that were developing from them, as though they were The Answer to understanding cognition. I commented to the group that such models might not last forever and that there were other approaches that might be considered as well. A professor at the meeting commented that “there is no other approach.” As far as he was concerned, the problem of how to understand cognition finally had been solved, once and for all. Today, such models have nowhere near the popularity they once had, and few people, I suspect, would seem them as the answer.

Choking off important areas of, or approaches to, research. At the same time that fads may distort the field by overemphasizing some areas or methods of research, it may choke off other areas or approaches that do not deserve such a fate. There is a pecking order of prestige of fields, whether we acknowledge it or not. It is probably easier, on average, to get a prestigious job if one works in the field of perception than in the field of creativity, or in the field of prejudice than of love. Studying certain areas that are not in fashion may end up costing one a hoped-for job.

It may be, in some cases, that certain fields do have intrinsically more value than others – for example, visual perception rather than extrasensory perception. But in choosing people in terms of current pecking orders, we may lose the benefit of research in important fields that are under-studied for no other reason than that they are not trendy.

Methods rather than substance. I was recently asked by a department chair if I knew of any strong junior people on the job market who used fMRI techniques in their research. Separately, a colleague told me about a job advertisement that specifically sought a candidate who uses fMRI methods. Rather than looking for someone who studies a certain problem (e.g., memory, ingratiation), or even someone who is in a particular field of psychology (e.g., cognitive psychology or social psychology), candidates are being sought based on whether he or she uses a particular technology in their research. Any problem is best studied through the use of converging operations – that is, a confluence of methods. What message do we send to students when we hire on the basis of a technology used in research rather than on the basis of what the person actually studies?

Fundamental values. Are we, as a field, really about fad hires? Can we tell people that, really, they were hired not so much because of their scholarly strength but because of the faddishness of the kind of research they do? I would hope that, as a field, we would commit ourselves to hiring people who study important problems and who do sound work on these problems, rather than to hiring people who represent the flavor of the month. In the long run, the former procedure will reflect better on us as a field, and will produce better theory and research. In our hiring, we should emphasize passion more than fashion.

The message of this article is not, of course, that hiring in hot areas is a mistake. Rather, it is that departments need to seek balance in hiring, with some hires in hot areas but others in areas that will always be important, whether or not they are trendy at a given time. A wise person is one who balances multiple interests and needs over the short and long terms in order to achieve a common good. A wise department does the same.

Kuhn, T. S. (1970). The structure of scientific revolutions (2nd ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Sternberg, R. J., & Grigorenko, E. L. (2001). Unified psychology. American Psychologist, 56, 1069-1079.
Sternberg, R. J., & Lubart, T. I. (1995). Defying the crowd: Cultivating creativity in a culture of conformity. New York: Free Press.

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