Perceptions of accounting and accountants: an investigation into how and why these perceptions were formed
Wells, Paul K
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There is growing concern that a widespread perception of accounting and accountants is discouraging individuals with the required skills and capabilities from entering the accounting profession. At the same time, an inappropriate perception may be attracting those who lack the required skills and capabilities. Research suggests that not only are perceptions of accounting and accountants very negative but that they may also be inaccurate and difficult to change. This thesis applies social psychology theory on stereotyping to assist in identifying why these perceptions are resistant to change. Stereotype theory suggests that strategies for changing perceptions are dependent on how and why the perceptions were formed. Through a questionnaire, this study sought to identify the perceptions and through interviews and focus groups, how and why they were formed. A questionnaire, interviews and focus groups were used to collect data from sixty-five people from four distinct groups. These groups included the general public, users of accounting services, young people making career decisions, and accountants themselves. Additional data was collected from a further three accounting educators. The application of stereotype theory has assisted in explaining why common perceptions of accounting and accountants have been so resistant to change and in identifying suitable intervention strategies. This study found that the perceptions people have of accounting and accountants are inaccurate. They are either too specific and hence unnecessarily restrictive and limiting, or alternatively the perceptions are so abstract and lacking in specificity that they are absorbed into a broader level category. In the first instance, a single experience is overgeneralised to represent a participant‟s understanding of accounting. In the second instance, accounting is overgeneralised to represent all activity of the broader category label. That the accounting profession, in general, has appeared to make little effort to correct these inaccurate perceptions and has failed to disseminate more widely the findings from academic research is of concern. Overgeneralised perceptions of accounting and accountants were found to be resistant to change for a number of reasons. Participants who created a very broad category label to represent their abstract understanding of accounting usually lacked the motivation and/or cognitive capacity to add specificity to their understanding. On the other hand, participants who based their perceptions of accounting on single exemplar models lacked an understanding of the skills and capabilities that accountants possessed and how these competencies could serve them. The influence of the high school curriculum was a further reason that perceptions were resistant to change. When members of the wider community had studied accounting at high school, their understanding of accounting was narrowly focused on the scorekeeping role of accounting. The perceptions of people who had studied accounting at high school, both currently and in the past, were the most resistant to change. The following interventions to change the perceptions people have of accounting and accountants are proposed. First it is necessary for the professional associations to articulate clearly the advice from the academic community on how the role of accountants and the nature of accounting have changed and to increase the awareness of these changes among their members. It is then necessary to communicate this information to the public by aligning the diverse range of accounting outputs with individual goals while explaining how accountants‟ training has changed to accommodate these more diverse roles. Finally, it is necessary to reconsider how accounting should be taught at high school, providing less emphasis on the scorekeeping role of accountants and increasing the emphasis on how accounting impacts everyday life.