Hidden Prejudices

The Economist carries a report on a couple of fascinating studies carried out by a group of researchers from the University of Chicago that use conjoint analysis “to study implicit biases in more realistic situations,” and quantifies “what has been dubbed the ‘stereotype tax’—the price that the person doing the stereotyping pays for his preconceived notions.”

In their first study, Dr Caruso and his team recruited 101 students and asked them to imagine they were taking part in a team trivia game with a cash prize. Each student was presented with profiles of potential team-mates and asked to rate them on their desirability.

The putative team-mates varied in several ways. Three of these were meant to correlate with success at trivia: educational level, IQ and previous experience with the game. In addition, each profile had a photo which showed whether the team-mate was slim or fat. After rating the profiles, the participants were asked to say how important they thought each attribute was in their decisions.

Not surprisingly, they reported that weight was the least important factor in their choice. However, their actual decisions revealed that no other attribute counted more heavily. In fact, they were willing to sacrifice quite a bit to have a thin team-mate. They would trade 11 IQ points—about 50% of the range of IQs available—for a colleague who was suitably slender.

In a second study the team asked another group, this time of students who were about to graduate, to consider hypothetical job opportunities at consulting firms. The positions varied in starting salary, location, holiday time and the sex of the potential boss.

When it came to salary, location and holiday, the students’ decisions matched their stated preferences. However, the boss’s sex turned out to be far more important than they said it was (this was true whether a student was male or female). In effect, they were willing to pay a 22% tax on their starting salary to have a male boss.

I’m guessing that if you do a similar study among Hindu landlords in Mumbai, giving them criteria like age, salary, marital status and religion, their stated preferences would match their actions for the first three of those—but not the fourth. My friend Manu Joseph had done a superb story for Outlook many years ago, about how he pretended to be a Muslim looking for a place on rent in Mumbai, and was continuously turned away. Another friend recently told me about a Muslim pal of hers who came to the city, tried unsuccessfully to find a good place on rent, and left in disgust when brokers kept recommending that he try looking for places in Muslim-dominated areas. (“Forget Worli, sir, why don’t you try Mahim?”)

Many of these landlords turning away Muslims would no doubt consider themselves secular and non-prejudiced. And really, if a friend of mine who owns a flat tells me that he’s got two equally attractive prospective tenants, one of whom is Muslim, and he’s going to give the flat to the Hindu just to be on the safe side, I’m not going to condemn him as a bigot. That is a preference he has a right to act upon when it comes to his own property. But thousands of such reasonable decisions, in the aggregate, ghettoize a city and polarize its people—and that vicious circle gets worse and worse. Sadly, that’s exactly what is happening in Mumbai.

(Link via email from Ravikiran.)

PS: Javed Akhtar, who keeps announcing on Indian Idol that there is a bias against women among viewers of the show, might want a similar study on a few sample viewers. But here’s the dilemma—every individual who sends a vote has a right to his or her preferences, and if he or she likes male voices more than female ones, that’s fair enough. (My favourites this time are both women—does that mean I’m prejudiced against men?) I’d consider it churlish to pass judgment on individual voters for their preferences—so is it fair to generalise and pass judgment on a larger group of people?