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Should the Government Be Targeting a Different Kind of Discrimination?

A new working paper from Uri Gneezy, John List, and Michael K. Price looks at discrimination via a variety of field experiments and more than 3,000 individual transactions:

In certain markets, the observed discrimination is not bigotry or animus-based, but consistent with the notion of profit-maximization, or Pigou’s (1920) “third-degree price discrimination”: in their pursuit of the most profitable transactions, marketers use observable characteristics to make statistical inference about reservation values of market agents. In others, the discrimination is more in line with Becker’s (1957) taste based theory of discrimination, or animus.

Interestingly, the nature of discrimination is less driven by particulars of the market or institutions, rather the nature of the disparate behavior is driven by whether the object of discrimination is a choice of the individual or is uncontrollable.

For example, one field experiment examined discrimination against disabled people in the context of car repairs, finding that disabled customers received higher quotes than the non-disabled customers. To get at the nature of this discrimination, the authors first conducted a survey, which revealed that “mechanics believe the disabled approach 1.85 body shops for price quotes while the non-disabled approach 2.85.”  In a second field experiment, the authors instructed participants to say the phrase, “I’m getting a few price quotes.”  This significantly changed outcomes — disabled participants received much lower offers: “Importantly, the lower offers received by disabled testers after signaling a willingness to search are not statistically different from those received by the abled,” write the authors. “In fact, the disabled now receive slightly lower price quotes.”  Additional field experiments examined discrimination by race, sexual orientation, and gender.

The authors point out that their results have important policy implications: “Given its historical significance, the U.S. government for decades has been codifying and erecting rules that forbid animus-based discrimination. Our study suggests that a much different kind of discrimination — statistical discrimination — permeates many markets and is importantly shaping surplus allocations.”