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Research Weights First Impression Influences on Baseball Promotions

Black Examines Pitcher Advancement in Minor Leagues
Research Weights First Impression Influences on Baseball Promotions
Dr. Dirk Black used the baseball diamond to observe whether first impressions of workers persisted versus on-field performance when determining promotions.

First impressions may be important, but do they have the power to overshadow poor performance in the workplace? Dr. Dirk Black, assistant professor of accountancy at the School of Accountancy, looked at how positive first impressions of professional baseball players might allow them to progress in the minor leagues despite performing poorly on the field.

“My research looks at how we use information to promote people to different jobs,” said Black, whose paper, “Do First Impressions Last? The Impact of Initial Assessments and Subsequent Performance on Promotion Decisions,” published in Management Science. “The samples we looked at are derived from minor league baseball. It’s a nice sample because the tasks in baseball are well-defined, and we’re only looking at pitchers. It’s a standard job across baseball.”

Black, who joined the University of Nebraska–Lincoln College of Business in 2018, emphasized how everything players do is observable on the field and recorded into digestible data sets. First impressions derive from looking at the spot each play was drafted. The higher the draft pick, the better first impression a player made on their team.

“We examine how employers weight their first impression versus on-field performance in promoting players through different levels of minor league baseball. The objective is to see whether promotion decisions management makes at the major league level are consistent with player performance,” he said.

Black ran two models. The first modeled future performance where he examined how well the first impression versus on-field performance predicts future performance, which is used as a benchmark. The next model looks at promotion likelihood on the same variables of the first impression and on-field performance.

Black researches management accounting topics at the School of Accountancy.
Black researches management accounting topics at the School of Accountancy.

“What we find is the weight on first impression is positive and significant for several years after the player starts playing. That holds true even though the weight on initial assessments and predicting future performance is essentially not significantly different from zero. In other words, managers hold on to first impressions of players much longer than they should,” he said.

The study shows first impressions last well into the players’ careers.

“Even though first impression doesn’t predict performance beyond the first year, managers use it to promote people five or six years after they start. The kicker is there is either really slow updating of beliefs, or there’s bias in the decision making. It’s there in every level of minor league baseball up to six years after the player’s rookie season,” he said.

Black focuses on management accounting issues that look at holding people accountable for their actions, previously studying issues surrounding CEO compensation. He enjoys baseball and follows the game closely along with his co-author Dr. Marshall Vance, assistant professor at Virginia Tech University. He believes their love of the game ties in well with the research. 

“If ever there was an environment where we could perfectly observe somebody's performance, it's baseball. We shouldn't observe any kind of bias or slow updating of beliefs about players in baseball because we can see everything they're doing on the field to evaluate their performance. And yet we still see it. I would expect our results to generalize to lots of other industries and types of jobs where performance is less observable and people are probably more likely to hold on to their first impressions,” he said.

Dr. Aaron Crabtree, associate dean of master's programs and executive development, recently hosted the School of Accountancy Advisory Board consisting of professionals from many companies. He arranged to showcase Black’s research as an example of the practical work being produced with direct application to businesses.

“Dirk has been able to examine interesting questions in less traditional settings and this project is a great example,” said Crabtree. “He shared his research with our advisory board, and they had great discussion with him. They could see how his results could play out in their workplaces very easily.” 

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Published: November 12, 2020