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New World, Old Problems


by Barbara Ruland, Communications Specialist

Bias in the Sharing Economy

The so-called “sharing economy” has opened up unprecedented opportunities for buying, renting, and selling goods, services, and intellectual resources. However, it has also opened up new possibilities for discrimination.

The recent accusations of discrimination on the Airbnb platform specifically highlight the propensity for racial discrimination in this new market. The Airbnb controversy broke late last year when a trio of Harvard researchers released the paper Racial Discrimination in the Sharing Economy: Evidence from a Field Experiment. Authors Benjamin Edelman, Michael Luca, and Dan Svirsky stated that “online marketplaces increasingly choose to reduce the anonymity of buyers and sellers in order to facilitate trust. We demonstrate that this common market design choice results in an important unintended consequence: racial discrimination.”

Mikki Hebl, SIOP Board Member and recipient of the 2016 Robert Foster Cherry Award for Great Teaching, has been studying discrimination and stigmatized groups for the last 20 years.

The Airbnb research findings illustrate conclusions she has drawn from her work and prompts her to issue a warning about letting interpersonal discrimination go unchecked as the “sharing economy” takes shape.

Hebl, the Martha and Henry Malcolm Lovett Chair of Psychology at Rice University, has published extensively on bias and discrimination, including Selectively Friending on Facebook, reported in 2012, in which she and her colleagues reported on three studies showing racial stereotypicality affects social acceptance in real and social media communities.

The Harvard authors found that African American guests were turned down by hosts 16% more often than whites. This, and an earlier study by Edelman and Luca in which they found African American hosts earned lower fees for renting properties, align with Hebl’s findings.

Hebl is one of many in the academic world drawing attention to ways bias continues to limit human interactions and opportunities. Because discrimination is socially unacceptable as well as illegal, it is now usually found at the interpersonal rather than the institutional level, she explained.

“Evidence from our lab shows many examples of such discrimination. For instance, male professors are more likely to get invited to be colloquium speakers than are female professors even after controlling for gender breakdowns and rank in the professoriate,” Hebl said.

“Moreover, salespeople say fewer words and use more negativity in their language when interacting with heavy (versus less heavy) customers.  For Airbnb, I would predict that people are using heritage and racial information contained within names.”

Personal injury caused by discrimination has been widely documented. People who are discriminated against are more likely to have health problems and lowered self-esteem. The chilling effect of discrimination keeps them from doing business and participating in activities where they are likely to be snubbed. According to Hebl, “bias has a self-fulfilling effect. Those who are treated worse go on to perform worse. For instance, our lab has found that interpersonal bias results in reduced workplace performance.”

Even subtle differences in how people are discussed can limit opportunities. In a 2013 TEDx video, Hebl outlined a study showing that “subtle doubt raisers” and the highlighting of different qualities in letters of recommendation for men and women held the women back.

Potentially the most dangerous aspect of interpersonal bias is that it is often completely unconscious.

A participant in a recent Twitter chat led by NPR’s Shankar Vedantam and Gene Demby asked whether it made any difference if the bias was conscious or unconscious. Hebl later echoed the resoundingly negative response, saying it’s the result that matters. Unconscious bias, though, can be more difficult to overcome, she said.

“Many people think they are fair and treat people equally, or that their biases are not as great as others,” she said. “Until people realize that they are actually quite biased, they are not motivated to reduce or eliminate the bias.”

Positive change is possible once bias is made visible. Hebl often speaks on this theme.

“Telling people about their biases and presenting them with hands-on examples help individuals recognize and change their own biases, as well as advocating change for others,” she said.

Hebl thinks the media discussion of discrimination on Airbnb is healthy. In addition to becoming aware of our own biases, it’s important to label and challenge biased behavior when confronted with it, she noted.

“Airbnb is a brilliant concept for several reasons,” she said, citing benefits for hosts and travelers, as well as for communities. “The problem becomes more serious when Airbnb begins to replace hotels, and certain types of individuals are systematically blocked from gaining access to accommodations. This has the potential to be not only morally problematic but illegal to certain classes of people. It’s just very important as this new service, and others like it—Care.com, Uber—continue to emerge that we consider fairness, access, and other legal issues.”

Airbnb has maintained that its culture is one of diversity and belonging. The authors of the Harvard study speculated that the company would probably not be held liable for allowing the alleged discrimination because of legal protections granted to online marketplaces, although individual hosts might.

While the public pressure continues, the discussion is entering a new phase. On May 18, WWBT television in Richmond, Virginia reported that Gregory Selden and his lawyers have filed a class action lawsuit against the Airbnb.