Experience impacts attitudes

Roommate selection data used to examine attitudes toward minority groups

A new working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research, authored by researchers from Baylor University, Texas A&M University and the University of California-Davis, examines the attitudes and preferences of white males toward black males by analyzing what affects the probability of choosing a black roommate at the U.S. Air Force Academy.

Through data supplied by the U.S. Air Force Academy, researchers were able to go beyond simply surveying white males about their attitudes toward black males and bolster their findings by analyzing their actions--in this case, white males choosing to room with black males during their sophomore year at the Academy. The study, "The Impact of Intergroup Contact on Racial Attitudes and Revealed Preferences," provides empirical evidence that increased contact between the two groups leads to meaningful changes in white males' behavior toward black males.

Study co-author James West, PhD, who serves as The W.H. Smith Professor of Economics in Baylor’s Hankamer School of Business, said observation of a person’s actions much more strongly signals what that person thinks.

"Actions don’t lie," West said.

The Air Force Academy provided an ideal model to examine, West explained, because cadets were assigned to 35-man squadrons during their freshman year; their roommates were assigned by the academy; and during this year, the vast majority of their time was spent only with members of this squadron.

"For that first year, they're allowed very little contact outside that group of 35," West said. "They eat with them. They study with them. They play intramural sports with them. They interact very intensively with these 35 people and there's little opportunity beyond that group.

"At the end of the freshman year, the freshman squadron is broken up and members are scattered throughout new squadrons. They have a new group of 35 people from which you can choose your roommate."

According to West, students have little to no knowledge about their roommate pool aside from possibly being in one or two shared courses. Their selections are based primarily on past experiences and interactions they've had with others.

"What we're testing here are raw attitudes, preconceived notions toward people of certain groups," West said.

The study shows that white males are "significantly more likely to room with a black student in their sophomore year after increased exposure in their freshman year to more black peers and black peers with higher academic aptitude. The magnitudes of the effects are quite sizeable."

Additionally, researchers found that white males from southern states, where racial prejudice has historically been deemed more prevalent, were 35 percent more likely to choose a black roommate.

"The psychology and sociology literature says people in majority groups have a more favorable view of people in minority groups if they've had greater contact with them," West said. "What we're claiming is that this unique structure of the U.S. Air Force Academy allows us to test that in an empirically credible way. We didn't design the structure; they have been using it for years."

In addition to West, study co-authors include Scott E. Carrell, PhD, the University of California-Davis; and Mark Hoekstra, PhD, Texas A&M University.