Age, Gender, Race, Religion, Ethnicity, First Name


“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”

While that may have been true in Shakespeare’s time, do we need to add a new type of discrimination today based on a person’s first name?

Researchers at Harvard Business School found that online marketplaces that choose to reduce the anonymity of buyers and sellers in order to facilitate trust experience an important unintended consequence: racial discrimination.

In a field experiment on Airbnb, the researchers found that requests from guests with distinctively African-American names are roughly 16% less likely to be accepted than identical guests with distinctively White names. The difference persists whether the host is African-American or White, male or female. The difference also persists whether the host shares the property with the guest or not, and whether the property is cheap or expensive.

The experiment also found that the discrimination is costly for those who do it: hosts who reject African American guests are able to find a replacement guest only 35% of the time.

Clearly, this should not be happening.

Initially, it was thought that digital market places would reduce this type of discrimination. Previous research has found that African-American car buyers paid a higher price than white car buyers at dealerships, whereas another research study found no such racial difference in online purchases.

Online platforms such as Amazon, eBay, and Expedia offer little chance for discrimination. However, this advantage is by no means guaranteed, and in fact it depends on design choices made by each online platform. Over time, platforms have moved toward systems that favor more revealing profiles that reduce anonymity for users. Such an approach is designed to foster a higher level of trust between buyer and seller.

Airbnb requires hosts and guests to present their first names; it is this reduced anonymity that could potentially lead to discrimination, as shown with the Airbnb experiment.

The first time I heard about this type of discrimination was in the great book Freakonomics. In that book, authors Levitt and Dubner talk about a study where researchers take identical resumes and just change the first name so that one name is distinctively black and another name isn’t. They send those out to employers and see whether there’s a callback. The result every time was that if you have a distinctively black name you’re less likely to get a callback.

(It should be pointed out, that despite the findings in this research study, Levitt and Dubner still concluded in their book that the name you are given at birth “does not seem to matter at all to your economic life.” In other words, it’s not the name your parents give you; it’s the kind of parents you have in the first place. It is true that your name may tell the world something, maybe even something fairly significant, about your parents’ religious or ethnic background, their level of income or education, maybe even their politics. But just think about it for a minute. Think about all the things that make you you – your intelligence, your taste, your health, your work ethic and morals and decision-making – to say nothing of luck. Now, considering all of those heavyweight forces, how much could something as superficial as a name really affect your life’s outcome?)

So getting back to the Airbnb study, the authors do have some recommendations on how Airbnb could avoid this type of discrimination:

  • Guest names could be concealed
  • Expand its “Instant Book” option, in which hosts accept guests without screening them first

The researchers also note that while Airbnb is likely protected from charges of discrimination, Airbnb hosts may not be. Thus, the authors suggest that an audit of Airbnb hosts take place, using the methods describes in the research study, to see if discrimination is indeed taking place.

So while the dog that proclaimed, “on the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog” in the famous New Yorker cartoon may be safe on a site like Amazon, if he’s trying to book a room via Airbnb, he better not tell the host that his name is Spot, Lassie, or Rover.


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