As the year’s most eagerly anticipated celebrity wedding took place in Venice this week, professor of management and marketing at Bucks New University Gloria Moss examines affinity bias and its influence in the workplace.
George Clooney, the world’s most eligible bachelor, tied the knot with striking Oxford-educated human rights barrister Amal Alamuddin, and the world looked on agog as one spectacular designer outfit followed another. It was a larger-than-life spectacle, hosted from the seven-star Aman Canal Grande in Venice, where rooms range from £1,000 to £3,200 per night. Despite its frescoed rooms, packed with antique tapestries, paintings and chandeliers, Clooney and Alamuddin made last-minute changes, ordering in even more antiques to blend in with the hotel’s Tiepolo frescoes.
A striking feature of the union is Clooney’s selection of a bride who combines film star looks with professional excellence, evidenced by Alamuddin’s clients past or present, including Julian Assange and Yulia Tymoshenko, the former Prime Minister of Ukraine.
What could have driven Clooney, who did not complete undergraduate studies himself, to seek such a lifelong partner? Could it be relevant that his mother, Nina Clooney, combined experience both as a beauty pageant queen and as a city councilwoman and that he is – unconsciously – seeking someone with similar characteristics?
Affinity bias – the evidence
The power of “affinity bias” – the tendency to be drawn to people or elements like ourselves or our families – has been repeatedly confirmed. Recent research, for example, led by Sreedhari Desai in 2012, found that the working status of men’s partners may influence their attitudes to women.
Affinity bias resources on XpertHR
The study suggested that employed men with non-working or part-time wives were more likely than those with full-time working wives to view women’s presence in the workplace unfavourably. Moreover, it found that these men perceived organisations with higher numbers of female employees as operating less smoothly and to be “relatively unattractive” and were likely to deny opportunities for promotion to qualified female employees.
Of course, while the study does not conclusively prove that the wife’s work status causes the husband’s attitudes – further research would be needed for that – the evidence from Social Learning theory regarding the attitude-changing effect of surrounding behaviour provides strong back-up.
So, too, does US-based research in 2008 by Vanessa Wright showing that a mother’s beliefs about female roles is a strong predictor of her son’s beliefs. Since researchers in 2004 (Bolzendahl and Myers) showed that working women tend to have more egalitarian beliefs about gender roles than non-working women, it is this egalitarian set of beliefs that is likely to be passed on to sons.
Lessons for individuals
Introducing a rational element when selecting friends or life-partners through realising the extent to which preferences may be driven by affinity may improve decision-making.
Lessons for organisations
Awareness of the power of affinity bias on decisions would be the most important. Affinity bias has the capacity – when a match is assured for example between the attitudes, preferences and demographics of internal staff and external customers – to enhance performance.
On the other hand, when customers receive a product, or service environment that they do not like, affinity bias acts negatively and performance and profitability is reduced. As a consequence, failing to take affinity bias into account in staff recruitment and promotion as well as in activities such as marketing and design, (for all my research demonstrates that men and women greatly prefer designs created by their own gender) can have disastrous consequences.
So, Clooney and Alamuddin have much to teach us. Attempting to raise awareness of affinity bias and then use it in a positive way, eradicating negative impacts on customer preferences, is a main priority. These are vital steps for organisations who want to maintain market share in a world in which canny competitors understand how to turn affinity bias to their advantage.