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VIII. CONCLUSIONS, LIMITATIONS OF CURRENT KNOWLEDGE, AND NEEDED RESEARCH

A. Conclusions

The strongest conclusion that can be drawn from the reviewed research is that the structure of an AAP will influence reactions to it. Attitudes are inversely related to the weighting of demographic status, and evaluations of selection procedures are directly related to the superiority of the chosen candidate. The effect of AAP structure on attitudes is mediated, at least in part, by judgments of fairness and self-interest, and fairness ratings are highly correlated with attitudes. There is slightly more support for AAPs directed at women and people with disabilities than for AAPs directed at racial minorities, although this effect is moderated by respondent demographic status in a manner consistent with self-interest. Minorities and women are more supportive of affirmative action than are White males, but other demographic variables (e.g., age, income, education) are of little consequence. Attitudes toward race-based affirmative action are inversely related to racism, and limited research suggests that attitudes toward gender-based affirmative action are inversely related to sexism. It has been suggested that attitudes will be associated with judgments of relative deprivation of the target group and the respondent's own group, but valid research is limited.

Some limited evidence suggests that there is great variability in what the public thinks AAPs entail, and that public opinions are flexible. Opinions can be changed by providing the respondent with information about details of the AAP and by some justification of the use of affirmative action. Support for affirmative action is stronger if the respondent has personally experienced discrimination. In addition, support for affirmative action is higher if the respondent believes or is told that the target group has suffered discrimination. There is evidence, however, that many Whites believe discrimination is no longer a problem, and that Blacks themselves are to blame for the Black-White income gap. This belief is consistent with a structuralist ideology, and attitudes are inversely related to acceptance of a conservative, structuralist political ideology.

Individuals who are identified as being selected under an AAP are perceived as less competent, by themselves and by others, unless information is provided that clearly and unambiguously demonstrates their competence. Conclusions regarding self-stigmatization must be qualified because almost all the relevant research has been based on reactions of White women to gender-based selection procedures; it is not known whether the results will generalize to ethnic minorities selected in the context of race-based procedures. There is no empirical research on effects of affirmative action on relations among groups, but theoretical work predicts that effects will be negative unless the AAP is positively evaluated by all involved parties.

Our limited review of the economic literature found that implementation of affirmative action is associated with improved employment conditions of women and racial minorities, although the improvements have been relatively small and inconsistent across subgroups. Other work revealed no apparent effects of affirmative action on organizational effectiveness. In addition, research has found that formal charges of discrimination led to a decrease in stock prices, and public recognition of affirmative action excellence led to a temporary increase in stock prices. In short, there is evidence that affirmative action helps target group members, but no empirical evidence that it harms organizations.

B. Limitations and Needed Research

The conclusions drawn above must be tempered by limitations in the research. Much of the research on target and non-target group members' reactions has used experiments, which necessarily simplify matters. This has the advantage of increasing internal validity, but does not permit exploration of the complexity of affirmative action attitudes. Research using surveys, in contrast, is more likely to permit such exploration. Survey research, however, lacks internal validity. Indeed, all research on individual difference variables (e.g., gender, ethnicity, racism, political perspective) lacks internal validity because these variables cannot be manipulated. Ideally, every question should be addressed with multiple research strategies, and the weaknesses of one strategy will be balanced by the strengths of others (McGrath, 1981). Unfortunately, as we have mentioned throughout this review, many questions have been addressed in limited ways. For example, research on self-stigmatization has been limited to reactions of women to gender-based selection in (mainly laboratory) experiments.

Another potential limitation is the contextual realism of the research and stimuli for participants. In comparison to actual AAPs, the stimuli used in most of this research have been simplistic. In addition, except for a few field studies with employed adults, this research has not been done within the context of an actual AAP. Furthermore, much of the research has been done with undergraduates who typically have had little direct experience with affirmative action. This lack of direct experience has important implications for how "crystallized" attitudes towards AAPs may be, and therefore how easy they are to change or how strongly they manifest themselves in behavior. Insofar as research on attitudes toward AAPs is concerned primarily with content differences across persons and contexts rather than process differences (Eberhardt & Fiske, 1994), the external validity of studies done with undergraduates responding to novel scenarios is uncertain until demonstrated otherwise.

On a related point, there is a great need for research on what organizations actually do to implement their AAPs (cf. Konrad & Linnehan, 1995a). This information could be used to improve the mundane realism of research on reactions to AAPs, and to evaluate the accuracy of public beliefs. There is also a need for research on public beliefs about what actions are and should be included in AAPs. This information would help administrators develop AAPs that help the target groups without stimulating resentment and opposition.

Confusion about what affirmative action entails has been increased by inconsistent statements made by decision makers and published by the media. A similar confusion reigns in the professional literature. In brief, operational definitions of affirmative action have varied considerably, but this variation has not been accompanied by a parallel variation in terminology. Thus, some people operationalize affirmative action as quotas, others as preferential treatment (weak, strong, or unspecified), others as recruitment, others as the elimination of discrimination, etc. Given the strong effect of AAP structure on reactions, this inconsistency in operational definitions has sometimes led to a parallel inconsistency in results. We recommend that researchers use more precise terms when describing their research; "affirmative action" is too vague.

Most of the research we reviewed was performed in the United States, although Canada, New Zealand, and the Netherlands were also represented. There is a need for additional research on affirmative action in other countries, and for an additional attention to cultural influences on reactions to affirmative action. In addition, the political climate in the United States has changed considerably since 1965, when EO11246 was issued. A review linking affirmative action attitudes to other changes over time would be a valuable contribution.

Another important question is how individuals' attitudes change over time, especially as a function of experience with affirmative action; we know of no longitudinal research on this question. Still another important question is how job satisfaction, organizational commitment, and similar variables are related to reactions to the organization's affirmative action plan. Witt (1990) reports the results of three discriminant analyses on the job satisfaction of White male university faculty, and concludes that attitudes toward affirmative action have little effect compared to the effects of time demand and other types of stress. We know of no other research on this important issue.

Another methodological concern is the possibility that people do not honestly express their affirmative action attitudes. This potential problem was addressed in a recent article by Coughlin (1995), who describes Timur Kuran's views on preference falsification. Kuran argues that people are unwilling to express their negative opinions of affirmative action because they are afraid of being labeled as racists. While this criticism applies to some research, much of the published work is based on anonymous responses. In addition, it seems inconsistent with the very negative evaluations of preferential treatment. Nonetheless, researchers who study affirmative action (or any other sensitive topic) should take steps to ensure that respondents can express their opinions openly and without fear.

In conclusion, previous research provides numerous questions and hypotheses about affirmative action attitudes and about how affirmative action affects target group members and non-members. Some conclusions can now be drawn with confidence, but much more research is needed before we can claim to thoroughly understand the psychological and behavioral implications of affirmative action.