Research on Cognitive Problem Solving, Part 1

Conferences are always a huge energy booster for me: immersing myself in new ideas that others are excited about, and thinking of the possibilities. So stimulating.

Last week I was at the American Accounting Association’s doctoral consortium. I spent one of the days listening to paper presentations about current efforts to understand critical thinking and professional skepticism among auditors. One paper, presented by Daniel Zhou from Emory University, was about the effect that intrinsic motivation has on audit quality.

His thesis was that intrinsically motivated auditors (those who are in it for the public good, or because they otherwise find it personally satisfying) exhibit superior auditing judgment to auditors who are extrinsically motivated (e.g., motivated chiefly by salary or by someday making partner). And–here’s the kicker–that motivational orientation can be manipulated.

He took one-third of his subjects and asked them whether they would agree with statements associated with intrinsic motivation (perhaps “I entered the field of auditing to protect the public trust”). The second group was asked questions associated with extrinsic motivation (perhaps, “It is important to me to receive a high performance rating”). The third group, the control, was asked questions about restaurants (perhaps, “I like to eat out”).

The effect on quality in the simulated audit task that followed was significant! Fascinating. None of this has been peer reviewed or replicated, but in the long run could carry implications for companies to not let their professionals forget the big picture.

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