Published on Development Impact

Can conversations between discriminators lead to less discrimination? Evidence from anti-transgender discrimination in India: Guest post from Duncan Webb

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Discrimination is costly, and we normally think that it is pretty hard to change – that it’s based on deep-seated prejudice, or stereotypical negative beliefs about minorities. But sometimes societies rapidly shift towards less discriminatory preferences: people become more accepting of same-sex marriage, or interethnic marriage, or women’s rights over the course of less than a generation. These changes often occur without any obvious changes in the external environment, suggesting that the way people in a society communicate with each other about a minority may lead to fast reductions in discrimination.


In my job market paper, I examine whether horizontal communication peer-to-peer conversations between majority-group members about a minority — can reduce discrimination. Why might such communication help? Perhaps through virtue signalling: if people don’t want to appear to be discriminatory, they might communicate in a pro-minority way in group settings, and persuade others to discriminate less. Another channel focuses on who communicates in a group: if those who are more supportive of a minority are particularly vocal, they may persuade others to discriminate less.


I ran a field experiment in urban Chennai, India (N=3,397) examining discrimination against the most visible LGBTQ+ group in India: a community of transgender women called thirunangai. Their social identity has been historically marginalised in India, and they are both visually recognisable and vulnerable to extensive economic discrimination and violence. Numbering at least 490,000 in India, they are stereotypically associated with begging and sex work, making it particularly difficult for them to find other forms of work (as indicated by very low rates of formal employment). They also face other forms of discrimination such family rejection, housing discrimination, exclusion from medical services, and police harassment. Despite this discrimination, there is some evidence of nascent social change towards greater acceptance, making this an apt setting in which to study the effects of horizontal communication on discrimination.


People are privately discriminatory…


In my experiment, I measure discrimination against transgender workers by offering participants a free grocery delivery, and asking them to make a series of binary choices over the worker who carries out the delivery (along with the items they receive, which are randomly varied across choices). Following economists’ standard definition of discrimination, I define it as the difference in the probability of choosing a transgender worker compared to a non-transgender worker, holding fixed the other attributes of the worker and items.


Participants, all of whom are non-transgender are privately highly discriminatory. In the control group, where participants always choose individually and in private, they are 19 percentage points (32%) less likely to hire transgender workers than non-transgender workers (Figure 1, left panel). Using the random variation in the items on offer across choices, I can evaluate the trade-off participants make between workers and item value. Their choices imply that they are willing to sacrifice grocery items worth 1.9x the median daily food expenditure to avoid interacting with a transgender worker.


Effect of discussion on the probability of selecting a transgender worker


…but communication between participants reduces discrimination


But horizontal communication between these discriminatory participants substantially reduces discrimination. I randomize whether participants are earlier involved in a discussion with two of their neighbors. In this discussion, participants are shown a series of hiring options, and have to make collective choices over which options they prefer. Since some of the options include transgender workers, participants naturally discuss whether they want to hire transgender workers. Crucially, the only communication about transgender people in this discussion comes from the participants themselves, rather than from the discussion facilitator.


The effects of this discussion on discrimination are stark: even when people are making private, individual choices after the discussion has ended, they are 17 p.p. (42%) more likely to select a trans worker than the control group (Figure 1, right panel). This implies that there is no significant anti-transgender discrimination on average in the discussion arm.


The discussion’s effects are substantially larger than a second form of communication about minorities that I test: communication about the legal rights of transgender individuals in India. I show participants a video that informs them about an Indian Supreme Court ruling that affirmed the fundamental rights of transgender persons. This reduces discrimination, but by only 59% as much as the discussion. The discussion’s effects are also partially persistent: when I re-survey participants around one month later, discussion participants are still 5 p.p. more likely to select transgender workers in a series of hypothetical hiring choices. While the effects are persistent, they are also substantially attenuated, implying that this light-touch 10-minute discussion is not sufficient to generate large changes in behaviour over the medium-run. Such changes would likely require more intensive, repeated interventions.




It’s surprising that generating communication between privately discriminatory individuals can sharply reduce post-communication discrimination. How can this occur? My additional results suggest that two channels are not sufficient for explaining the effects: (i) correcting a misperceived norm and (ii) virtue signalling. Instead, the results seem to be driven by (iii) persuasion.


         i.            Correcting a misperceived norm. One plausible explanation would be that participants initially overestimate how discriminatory their neighbors are (as in Bursztyn et al 2020). Then, when they communicate, this misperception is corrected, and so everyone feels more comfortable selecting a trans worker. But this pattern isn’t enough to explain the large treatment effects. Although people in the control group do overestimate how discriminatory their neighbors are (by 5p.p.), the reduction in predicted discrimination generated by the discussion is far larger than the initial misperception (24p.p.). This suggests that a simple correction of a misperception could only account for around 21% of the treatment effect.


       ii.            Virtue signalling. The results also don’t seem to be explained by a simple story of virtue signalling.  If participants have social image concerns and don’t want to appear discriminatory in a group setting, they may act more favorably towards transgender persons in a group setting, in turn persuading others to be more pro-trans. I test this channel using a “public” treatment in which participants don’t discuss with each other, but instead make individual hiring choices that they know will be revealed to other members of their group. This treatment has no effect on discrimination, suggesting that virtue signalling alone cannot drive pro-trans behavior in the absence of horizontal communication.


     iii.            Persuasion. By contrast, persuasion does seem to explain the effects of the discussion. To show that persuasion occurs, I add a treatment arm in which one participant silently listens to two other people who have a discussion. The effect on these “listeners” is just as large as on people who actively participate in a discussion. The effects therefore seem to be driven by persuasion between participants, rather than participants persuading themselves in the process of producing arguments about who to hire.

But why do participants persuade each other to be more pro-trans, rather than more anti-trans? I suggest that this is because pro-trans participants are more vocal in the discussions. They are more likely to speak first and dominate a discussion, specifically when faced with a choice involving a transgender worker. On net, therefore, participants are persuaded to discriminate less. In the paper, I use a model to describe why pro-trans people might be more vocal than anti-trans people in this way. It shows that when people are on average discriminatory, but not too discriminatory, pro-trans people can have a greater incentive to change other people’s attitudes in order to not deviate too far from the group norm.

Alternatively, the results could be driven by asymmetric persuasion. If arguments in favor of selecting transgender workers are more persuasive than anti-trans arguments, and participants anticipate this, then pro-trans people may have a greater incentive to speak up. This is plausible given that pro-trans participants often use moral arguments (e.g., people say “We shouldn’t discriminate”), while anti-trans participants typically focus on details like the qualifications of the worker that may be less compelling.


How can we use these insights?


Under the right conditions, horizontal communication between discriminatory individuals can substantially reduce discrimination. I show this can occur when there are persuasive arguments against discriminating, and a subset of people who are willing to speak out in favour of a minority even within a discriminatory group. Since I focus on a specific setting — anti-transgender discrimination in India — further research should examine how such results apply in other contexts.

Nevertheless, the study provides a proof-of-concept that could be applied to policies.


First, we could design and evaluate policies that create discussions at scale to change anti-minority attitudes. Previous work shows that it may be possible to change discriminatory attitudes by leading discussion-based interventions in schools, or by door-to-door canvassing. My results suggest that discrimination can be reduced without even having to lead a discussion; instead, just creating a scenario where minorities are naturally discussed at all might be sufficient.


Second, we could encourage group-based decision environments, rather than individual decision-making, in high-stakes environments where discrimination takes place. For example, processes for hiring, college admissions, and housing allocation may avoid the substantial costs of discrimination if they are based on committees rather than individuals’ decisions.


Duncan Webb is a PhD student at the Paris School of Economics.

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