Book Forum: Harford and Caplan on Statistical Discrimination

The Logic of Life contains an excellent chapter explaining statistical discrimination but does the theory hold up?  Bryan Caplan says no

…[Tim] heavily emphasizes a few experiments showing that statistical
discrimination could be a "self-fulfilling prophesy." For example, he
describes a resume experiment where otherwise identical fake resumes
with "black names" were less likely to get a response. "High-quality
applicants were more likely to be invited for an interview, but only if
they were white. Employers didn’t seem to notice whether black
applicants had extra skills or experience." If that is how employers
treat black applicants, what’s the point of trying? As Tim asks, "Why
bother to get a degree or work experience if you are young, gifted, and

But is it really true that the market fails to reward blacks for
getting more education? Is it even true that the market rewards them
less? I tested these claims using one of the world’s best labor data
sets, the NLSY.  The results directly contradict Tim’s self-fulfilling prophesy story.  Blacks actually get a substantially larger
return to education than non-blacks! The same goes for experience,
though the result is not statistically significant. The real lesson of
the data is that if you are young, gifted, and black, you should get a
ton of education, because it has an exceptionally large pay-off.

Why would this be so?  I’m not sure, but one simple story is that counter-stereotypical
behavior stands out. When my sons were young, my wife was working a
lot, so I often took my kids places on my own. Funny thing: Time and
again, strangers came up and said, "Wow, you’re such a great dad!" But
there were moms of young kids doing the same thing in plain sight, and
the strangers rarely praised them.  Why not?  Because a dad taking care of two babies is counter-stereotypical, which grabs people’s attention. 

Purely anecdotal, yes. But it is consistent with the small academic
literature on counter-stereotypical behavior. If you clearly violate
expectations, people not only notice; they often over-react.

The upshot is that stereotypes may actually be self-reversing
rather than self-fulfilling. The marginal payoff of distinguishing
yourself from the pack is high if people think poorly of the typical
member of the pack.

Bryan has much more on the unpleasant truths about discrimination.  Read the whole thing.


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