Does caste matter?

If discrimination against an historically oppressed social group is dismantled, will the group forge ahead? This paper presents experimental evidence that a history of social and legal disabilities may have persistent effects on a group’s earnings through its impact on individuals’ expectations. 321 high-caste and 321 low-caste junior high school male student volunteers in village India participated in an experiment in which their caste either was not revealed or was made salient. There were no caste differences in performance when caste was not revealed, but making caste salient created a large
and robust caste gap in performance. When a non human factor influencing rewards (a random draw) was introduced, the caste gap disappeared. The results suggest that when caste identity is public information, low-caste subjects anticipate that their effort will be poorly rewarded. The experimental design enables us to exclude as explanations socioeconomic differences and a lack of self-confidence by low-caste players.

What are they really saying? When the Experiment-Meister knows who belongs to which caste, and this is common knowledge, the low caste players don’t try very hard. It seems the low caste players don’t expect to keep anything they might win.

Use the same players, but “caste blind,” and the low caste players put in a good showing. Their supposed “self-confidence” problems disappear. In fact the high caste players try harder too.

“Mistrust undermines motivation”, write the authors. How is that for a nice three word sentence?

The bottom line: File under: “More problems with Iraq.” No the Iraqis don’t have a caste system, but they are not used to playing by fair rules either. So we can’t expect them to trust the incentives we put before them.

Here is the full paper, which includes the details on experiment design. Of course one experiment doth not a full conclusion make, but I found this work fascinating. If I had an award for “paper of the week” [hmm…], this one might win it.


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