Musings on Accounting Research by Steve

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A contribution to theory . . .


Increasingly I am seeing claims in experimental papers about their “contribution to theory”, normally psychology.  I find this strange, except for when the contribution is about a boundary condition to psychology theories.

If we believe the accounting setting is worthy of study, then that means that there must be something unique about the human activities in the setting that causes us to doubt that psychology research can be simply transferred and applied to the setting.  Indeed, one of the critical points for psychology research in accounting came when Katherine Schipper, in a letter that is one of the most misunderstood missives in the history of accounting research, called for accounting researchers to stop simply transferring and applying psychology research (especially heuristics and biases research) to the accounting setting.  In essence, she was willing to accept that accountants and auditors are human and if you transfer and apply psyhcology theory to a setting where there is no countervailing force, auditors and accountants are going to act as humans.

But what is interesting about the accounting and auditing setting is that they are often implicitly designed to try and reduce/eliminate these biases (one cause of ineffectiveness) while recognizing where the heuristics work well (one cause of efficiency).  Of course,  by trial and error systems were put in place to achieve that goal.  As psychology based researchers we are attempting to see if that goal has been achieved (among others).

Hence, I find that most claims to contribute to psychology theory based on accounting specific research are problematic.  For if the accounting researcher is studying a setting where theory applied as tested can be generalized to all people, then by definition, the researcher is not studying a setting in the accounting context.  So when I read about contributions to psychology theory, it starts me thinking about whether this research is within the domain of accounting at all.  Of course, I am always open to an argument to the contrary but a “throwaway line” about contributions to psychology by itself is more of a “red flag” than anything else.

That is my take anyhow.

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