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Popularity of references: An evolutionary perspective

Given the unreliability and poor validity of references, it is hard to understand why this method of assessment is used so widely. One reason may be that employers are unaware of the problems associated with it (Terpstra & Rozell, 1997), though in so far as references are requested by business and psychology schools, where employers have access to this literature and are aware of the low validity and reliability of recommendation letters, there may be other reasons. Colarelli and colleagues (2002) explain the widespread use of references in terms of what evolutionary theory calls reciprocal altruism (tit-for-tat), which is the basis of cooperation among non-kin (Buss, 1995). They applied the principle of reciprocal altruism to the relationship between the applicant and candidate, specifically how closeness between them determines the favourability of the references. They argue that ‘a recommender will be inclined to write favourably if the applicant is perceived as a valuable resource or if there has been a history of mutually beneficial social exchange. An evolutionary psychological perspective suggests that cooperation, status competition and mating interests should affect the tone of letters of recommendation’ (2002, p. 325).

A second hypothesis derived from evolutionary theory is that men’s preference for younger females should be reflected in more favourable references. Specifically, Col- larelli and colleagues explain that ‘males typically desire attractive, younger females as mating partners because youth and beauty are cues of health and fertility. As such, males are likely to be most solicitous towards younger females and regard them in a positive way. This positive regard, in turn, is likely to be reflected in letters of recommendation’ (2002, p. 328).

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