Does Status Equal Substance? The Effects of Specialist Social Status on Auditor Assessments of Complex Estimates

54 Pages Posted: 12 May 2020

See all articles by Anna Gold

Anna Gold

Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam; Norwegian School of Economics (NHH)

Kathryn Kadous

Emory University - Goizueta Business School

Justin Leiby

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Date Written: April 17, 2020

Abstract

Auditors rely on specialists in auditing complex estimates, but do they rely on specialists for the right reasons? We examine whether specialists’ high social status influences auditor assessments of specialists’ competence and, in turn, auditors’ conclusions about the reasonableness of client estimates. We argue that specialist social status most likely affects auditor conclusions under conditions of heightened ambiguity, specifically when (1) the specialist disagrees with the client or (2) when the specialist agrees with the client but offers poor justification for the conclusion. We first conduct a survey with highly experienced auditors to distinguish characteristics that are diagnostic of high social status but not of competence. We then conduct two experiments in which we vary status characteristics of the specialist and hold competence constant. Encouragingly, we find that auditors are more willing to disagree with the client's estimate when a high (as opposed to moderate) social status specialist disagrees with it. Contrary to expectations, auditors seem to ignore the quality of specialists' justifications and instead anchor on specialists' conclusions. Moreover, supplemental analyses suggest that auditors unintentionally mistake social status for competence, but intentionally use social status to guide their reliance on the specialist in forming a conclusion about the client’s estimate. That is, auditors know that high social status is not a valid signal of competence, but use this signal in their judgments anyway. Our evidence suggests that this stems from beliefs that a high social status specialist’s clout and social influence is necessary to push back on an aggressive client estimate. We discuss practical and theoretical implications, including that it may be advantageous to separate competence assessments from determinations of how to use the specialist’s input. It may also be advantageous for firms, regulators, and standard setters to recognize that auditors are influenced by specialist attributes other than competence, including the specialist’s social status.

Keywords: accounting estimates, status, specialists, advice, expertise, bias

Suggested Citation

Gold, Anna and Kadous, Kathryn and Leiby, Justin, Does Status Equal Substance? The Effects of Specialist Social Status on Auditor Assessments of Complex Estimates (April 17, 2020). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3578700 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3578700

Anna Gold

Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam ( email )

De Boelelaan 1105
Amsterdam, 1081HV
Netherlands
+31 20 598 25 92 (Phone)

Norwegian School of Economics (NHH) ( email )

Helleveien 30
Bergen, NO-5045
Norway

Kathryn Kadous

Emory University - Goizueta Business School ( email )

1300 Clifton Road
Atlanta, GA 30322-2722
United States
404-727-4967 (Phone)

Justin Leiby (Contact Author)

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign ( email )

1206 S 6th St
Champaign, IL 61822
United States
2173007825 (Phone)

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