Media Briefings

FAVOURITISM VERSUS DISCRIMINATION: Experimental evidence from exam grading at a Dutch university

  • Published Date: July 2016

FAVOURITISM VERSUS DISCRIMINATION: Experimental evidence from exam grading at a Dutch university

Exam grades at a Dutch university suggest unconscious favouritism towards some students based on their nationality, but no discrimination. What’s more, university staff who are more experienced and those rated by the students as worse teachers exhibit stronger favouritism. These are among the findings of experimental research by Jan Feld, Nicolás Salamanca and Daniel Hamermesh, published in the August 2016 issue of the Economic Journal.

The researchers note that we often observe differences in outcomes between a majority and a minority – for example, by race, religion or sexual preference – and we often attribute these to discrimination: negative attitudes towards the minority. Yet we only observe a relative difference that might also be explained by favouritism: positive attitudes towards the majority.

This distinction between discrimination and favouritism matters in real life. In the labour market, for example, both discrimination and favouritism can create wage gaps in labour markets. But whether these gaps are driven by favouritism or discrimination can affect whether they persist over time.

This study creates a field experiment in a Dutch university to examine the extent to which ‘endophilia’ – favouritism toward one’s own group – and ‘exophobia’ – discrimination against other groups – influences exam grades.

At this university there is a large share of German and Dutch students whose names can be used to identify their nationality and gender. In university exams, it is also customary to write students’ names together with their ID number.

In the researchers’ field experiment, they asked some randomly chosen students not to write their names on their exams and then compared the grades of students with and without names visible to the graders.

This makes it possible to identify discrimination against others if the graders were to give lower grades to students with a different nationality or gender when they can see their names. And favouritism can be identified if the graders were to give students with the same nationality or gender higher grades when their names are visible.

The study finds that graders exhibit substantial favouritism, but no discrimination, by nationality. There is neither favouritism nor discrimination by gender.

This evidence suggests that these attitudes are consistent with implicit rather than explicit discrimination – by unconscious mental associations of the graders rather than by deliberate choices made by them.

The researchers also find that more experienced graders and those rated by the students as worse teachers exhibit stronger favouritism.

Co-author Nicolás Salamanca comments:

‘The methodology and results of our experiment show that we can distinguish between discrimination and favouritism.’

‘They indicate that these two concepts are not opposite sides of the same coin – and that their relative extents can be measured.’

ENDS


Notes for editors: ‘Endophilia or Exophobia: Beyond Discrimination’ by Jan Feld, Nicolás Salamanca and Daniel Hamermesh is published in the August 2016 issue of the Economic Journal.

Jan Feld is at the Victoria University of Wellington. Nicolás Salamanca is at the University of Melbourne. Daniel Hamermesh is at Royal Holloway University of London.

For further information: contact Romesh Vaitilingam on +44-7768-661095 (email: romesh@vaitilingam.com; Twitter: @econromesh); or Nicolás Salamanca via email: n.salamanca@unimelb.edu.au