The ‘chocolate cake fallacy’ and academic recruitment

Don’t worry, this is not a blog giving you a cookery lesson. It’s a blog about a lesson I learned from cookery.

If I intend to make a cake, and I ask my children what sort of cake they want, the answer is invariably the same: ‘Chocolate cake please’. Any sort of chocolate cake will do, but in the country of the Chocolate Cake, White Chocolate Brownies are King.

I notice this acutely, as chocolate cake is my least favourite cake, although I am quite partial to the raw mixture. But at least the years of selflessly baking chocolate cakes for my eager offspring has annoyed me enough that it’s alerted me to a common fallacy.

There are lots of other sorts of cake that my children also really like: for example, lemon drizzle cake, fruit cake, Welsh cakes, almond cake, Battenburg cake, banana cake, poppy seed cake, ginger bread cake, apple cake, macaroons, not to mention those lovely little nutty chocolate cake log things coated in chocolate and green marzipan you can get in Ikea.

So, were I to ask them if they would like to live a life in which they never ate any of this extensive range of baked delicacies, they would surely exclaim in horror. Yet, each separate time that I ask them what sort of cake they want, the answer is the same: ‘Chocolate cake’. Yet they don’t want to never eat anything other than chocolate cake. This is a prime example of short term thinking, of prioritizing the present over the future, of prioritizing an immediate assessment of one choice over an extended range of choices over a lifetime. It is a part of what Aristotle had in mind in the Nicomachean Ethics when he pondered Solon’s question of whether we can call any man happy until he is dead. Can we call any cake eater satisfied, until we can look back over an entire life of cake consumption, contemplating the full range of cakes enjoyed? Surely we would have only pity for someone who ate only chocolate cake, whilst the lemon drizzles and the gingerbreads and the Dundee cakes never even made it off the page of the recipe book and into reality, let alone into their stomachs?

Yet, I strongly suspect that recruiters to jobs are falling into something very similar to this Chocolate Cake Fallacy when they choose candidates for posts. I certainly have a strong hunch that this is happening in academic recruitment. I’ve been looking out to see what sort of candidates are actually successful in recruitment to academic posts in philosophy. And there certainly does seem to be a type – someone who works on a currently prominent area; someone young, who can be seen as having potential; someone who has a few publications in just the right journals; someone who has referees from a select circle; someone who has the right academic connections; someone who has very little teaching experience. A short translation of this would be the Young Well-Connected Genius Type.

My guess is that recruiters just look at a pile of applications, probably screen out most of them without even reading them, probably put applications into a bin as soon as they see any reason to think there’s some problem with  a person (in fact, a recruiter told me that’s what he does) which is a jolly good way of overlooking people with outstanding qualities or unusual profiles; and then, seeing the applications that remain through a lens of ‘what is our profile of the best possible philosopher?’ overlook entirely the need to populate a university department with a range of characters and abilities.

Now, I don’t have the time to do a whole load of empirical research into this, although it would be great if people whose job it was to consider these things did. But what I do know is this. If you want a good team of people in a university department, you don’t want a whole load of clones. You don’t want a whole load of people who have similar qualities. You want a range of qualities. Or else you’ll end up wondering why there is nothing being served up in academia but a constant diet of chocolate cake. And even if that chocolate cake is the very best white chocolate brownie, that’s surely not what you really want, now,  is it? Time to wake up and smell the lemon drizzle.

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