Large-scale experiment reveals new insights into inequality in workplace

Is there a flaw in initiatives to increase diversity at work? A new study by researchers at Columbia University and the University of Warwick finds that in the USA, white employees can unintentionally perpetuate inequality by ignoring and underestimating their black peers.

In Racial Attention Deficit, published today in Science Advances, Professor David Stark of Columbia University and the University of Warwick, Sheen S. Levine of the University of Texas, Dallas and Columbia University and Charlotte Reypens, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Warwick report on a large, multi-year experiment that captured people’s willingness to observe and learn from colleagues of different ethnicities.

In the study, 2,500 White working-age Americans were asked to solve a puzzle for a cash reward. The puzzle was designed so that, in order to do well, the participants needed to learn from the choices of others. Before deciding on their answer, each participant could observe the choices of two peers who had solved the same puzzle. Those who failed to attend to others’ choices made poor decisions. By experimentally varying the apparent race of the peers, the researchers were able to establish whether White participants paid equal attention to Black peers versus White ones.

The study found that:-

· White Americans were 33% less likely to follow the choices of, and learn from, Black peers.

· White Americans regarded Black peers as less competent than White ones,

· White Americans were statistically less likely to follow their example, even when it would have resulted in a better decision.

The researchers propose and test several measures to mitigate this racial attention deficit, which could be implemented by workplaces and other organisations to create a climate of inclusive recognition.

Professor Stark said: “In our experimental study we find that White Americans are less likely to pay attention to and follow the example of their Black peers even when it is in their interest to do so. It’s a worrisome finding. It indicates that our society, and organizations in it, suffer from a racial attention deficit

“As a distinct form of discrimination, racial attention deficit consists of underestimating, overlooking, or ignoring members of certain groups. It need not be a product of overt aversive racism, but results from stigmatization that can be subtle. Nonetheless, it goes to the very core of relations among individuals and groups in society because it is about the fundamental question of worth: Who recognizes whom as worthy of attention?

“The hopeful news is that we can remedy the racial attention deficit. It requires recognizing the accomplishments of Black peers, especially when this recognition is subtly embedded in everyday organizational practice.”

Commenting on the experiment, Michèle Lamont, Professor of Sociology and of African and African American Studies and the Robert I. Goldman Professor of European Studies at Harvard University, said: “Interviews show that being ignored and overlooked is a crucial dimension of racism. Yet, this type of experience, which one may called “assault on worth,” is rarely studied, especially as compared to those of blatant racism or discrimination.

“The authors of Racial Attention Deficit make a brilliant contribution to the social sciences by demonstrating behaviourally how, and how much, white people ignore, overlook and underestimate black colleagues.

“Their study of “recognition gaps” in “who pays attention to whom” explores new paths in our understanding of how inequality operates, which has everything to do with how everyday judgements of worth are omnipresent and make racism so hard to combat.”

· The research was supported by a major grant from the European Research Council.

· Read the full paper: S. S. Levine, C. Reypens, D. Stark, Racial attention deficit. Sci. Adv. 7, eabg9508 (2021). DOI 10.1126/sciadv.abg9508

NOTES

David Stark is Professor of Social Science at the University of Warwick and Arthur Lehman Professor of Sociology at Columbia University. His book, The Sense of Dissonance: Accounts of Worth in Economic Life (Princeton University Press 2009) is an ethnographic account of how organizations and their members search for what is valuable. Ongoing projects include experimental research to examine how ethnic diversity disrupts conformity and deflates price bubbles; network analytic studies on team formation in creative fields; and research on how the social structure of attention shapes valuation. His CV, publications, papers, course materials, “silent lectures,” and other presentations are available at davidcstark.net.

This study is part of the ERC-funded research project Diversity and Performance

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