Researchers Use Roommate Selection Data to Examine Attitudes Toward Minority Groups

  • Jim West Research iStock Photo
  • James West
    James West, Ph.D., W.H. Smith Professor of Economics in Baylor University's Hankamer School of Business. (Matthew Minard, Baylor Photography)
March 3, 2015

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Increased contact with minorities encourages future interactions, researchers say

WACO, Texas (March 3, 2015) – What people do reveals more about their attitudes than what they say.

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.

“If the actions of someone can be observed, that’s a much more powerful signal of what they really think,” said study co-author James West, Ph.D., W.H. Smith Professor of Economics in Baylor University’s Hankamer School of Business. “Actions don’t lie.”

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. 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,” West said.

“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.”

Students have little-to-no knowledge about their roommate pool, aside from possibly being in one or two shared courses, West said. 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 result?

“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 study states. “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, Ph.D., of the University of California-Davis; and Mark Hoekstra, Ph.D., of Texas A&M University.

ABOUT BAYLOR UNIVERSITY

Baylor University is a private Christian University and a nationally ranked research institution, characterized as having “high research activity” by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. The University provides a vibrant campus community for approximately 16,000 students by blending interdisciplinary research with an international reputation for educational excellence and a faculty commitment to teaching and scholarship. Chartered in 1845 by the Republic of Texas through the efforts of Baptist pioneers, Baylor is the oldest continually operating University in Texas. Located in Waco, Baylor welcomes students from all 50 states and more than 80 countries to study a broad range of degrees among its 12 nationally recognized academic divisions. Baylor sponsors 19 varsity athletic teams and is a founding member of the Big 12 Conference.

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