The Situationist

Archive for February 17th, 2009

The Stereotype Tax

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 17, 2009

The last issue of The Economist includes an interesting article, titled “The Price of Prejudice,” summarizing IAT research and two other studies employing conjoint analysis to measure the difference between what we would do as compared to what we would say we would do.  Here’s an excerpt.

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Nobody likes to admit an uncomfortable truth about himself, especially when charged issues such as race, sex, age and even supersized waistlines come into play. That makes the task of the behavioural scientist a difficult one. Not only may participants in a study be lying to those running a test, but they may also, fundamentally, be lying to themselves.

Prising the lid off human assumptions and hidden biases thus requires clever tools. One of the most widely deployed, known as the implicit-association test, measures how quickly people associate words describing facial characteristics with different types of faces that display those characteristics. When such characteristics are favourable—“laughter” or “joy”, for example—it often takes someone longer to match them with faces that they may, unconsciously, view unfavourably (old, if the participant is young, or non-white if he is white). This procedure thus picks up biases that the participants say they are not aware of having.

Whether these small differences in what are essentially artificial tasks really reflect day-to-day actions and choices was, until recently, untested. But that has changed. In a paper to be published next month in Social Cognition, a group of researchers led by Eugene Caruso of the University of Chicago report their use of a technique called conjoint analysis, which they have adopted from the field of market research and adapted to study implicit biases in more realistic situations.

Conjoint analysis, they think, lets them quantify what has been dubbed the “stereotype tax”—the price that the person doing the stereotyping pays for his preconceived notions. In two studies, they turn their new tool loose on questions of the perception of weight and sex.

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Conjoint analysis asks participants to evaluate a series of products that vary in several important attributes, such as televisions of various screen sizes, brands and prices. By varying these attributes in a systematic way market researchers can measure with reasonable precision how much each trait is worth. They can then calculate how big a premium people are willing to pay in one attribute (price) to get what they want in another (a larger screen).

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.

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To read the entire article, including discussion of another fascinating experiment involving race, click here.

To read a related Situationist posts, see “Mispredicting Our Reactions to Racism,” “The Situation of Body Image,” Prejudice Against the Obese and Some of its Situational Sources,” Hey Dove! Talk to YOUR parent!,” Shades of Fairness and the Marketing of Prejudice,” Fitting in and Sizing up,” The Cognitive Costs of Interracial Interactions,” Guilt and Racial Prejudice,” “Perceptions of Racial Divide,” and “Banaji & Greenwald on Edge – Part IV.”

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