Letters of Recommendation: An Evolutionary Psychological Perspective

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This article develops a theoretical framework for understanding the appeal and tone of letters of recommendation using an evolutionary psychological perspective. Several hypotheses derived from this framework are developed and tested. The authors’ theoretical argument makes two major points. First, over the course of human evolution, people developed a preference for narrative information about people, and the format of letters of recommendation is compatible with that preference. Second, because recommenders are acquaintances of applicants, the tone of letters should reflect the degree to which the relationship with the applicant favors the recommender’s interests. We hypothesized that, over and above an applicant’s objective qualifications, letters of recommendation will reflect cooperative, status and mating interests of recommenders. We used 532 letters of recommendation written for 169 applicants for faculty positions to test our hypotheses. The results indicated that the strength of the cooperative relationship between recommenders and applicants influenced the favorability and length of letters. In addition, male recommenders wrote more favorable letters for female than male applicants, suggesting that male mating interests may influence letter favorability. We conclude with implications for practice and future research.