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Removing a noisy signal improves decision making: Army removes photos from promotion sheets

Summary:
From The Army Times: The Army will no longer include official photos for officer selection boards, beginning in August, to help eliminate unconscious biases in the promotion process...To their credit, the Army first ran an experiment to determine the consequence of the change and found that when the photo was removed:...there was less variance between voters’ scoring, meaning voters ranked candidates more similarly across the board. After removing the photo, voters also took less time to make decisions on each individual file, and the outcomes for minorities and women improved.A similar change, Ban the Box, a ban on employers asking about criminal background, saw some employers turn to race as a proxy for criminal background.  The difference seems to be in the value of the signal:

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 From The Army Times:

The Army will no longer include official photos for officer selection boards, beginning in August, to help eliminate unconscious biases in the promotion process...

To their credit, the Army first ran an experiment to determine the consequence of the change and found that when the photo was removed:

...there was less variance between voters’ scoring, meaning voters ranked candidates more similarly across the board. After removing the photo, voters also took less time to make decisions on each individual file, and the outcomes for minorities and women improved.

A similar change, Ban the Box, a ban on employers asking about criminal background, saw some employers turn to race as a proxy for criminal background.  The difference seems to be in the value of the signal:  removing a noisy signal results in better decisions; but removing a valuable one does not.  

One student uses questions about criminal background to screen for honesty, which results in better hiring decisions at his firm.  Unsurprisingly, honesty seems like a valuable signal.  

HT:  Evan W.

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