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When "No" Means "Yes": Measuring Social Desirability Effects on the Expression of Biological Concepts of Race

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*Part of TESS 2004 Telephone Survey

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Principal Investigator(s):

Hannah Brueckner
New York University Abu Dhabi
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Alondra Nelson
Columbia University
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Ann Morning
New York University
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Sample size: 1020
Field period: 10/8/2005 - 10/14/2005


In recent years, dramatic developments in genetics research have begun to transform not only the practice of medicine but also conceptions of the social world. In the media, in popular culture, and in everyday conversation, Americans routinely link genetics to individual behavior and social outcomes. On the other hand, social researchers contend that biological definitions of race have lost ground in the United States over the last 50 years. At the crossroads of two trends--on one hand, the post-World War II recoil from biological accounts of racial difference, and on the other, the growing admiration for the advances of genetic science--the American public's conception of race is a phenomenon that merits greater attention from sociologists than it has received to date. However, survey data on racial attitudes has proven to be significantly affected by social desirability bias. While a number of studies have attempted to measure social desirability bias with regard to racial attitudes, most have focused on racial policy preferences rather than genetic accounts of racial inequality. We employ a list experiment to create an unobtrusive measure of support for a biologistic understanding of racial inequality.


The difference between the proportion of respondents in the comparison group, and the proportion determined in the previous step as truly supporting the sensitive statement, provides a measure of the presence and magnitude of social desirability. Specifically, we test the hypothesis that this difference is greater than the proportion of respondents in the comparison group who agree with the item. Second, we will analyze the
magnitude of social desirability in subgroups according to age, gender, and education. All of these are thought be associated with racial attitudes, but also with social desirability effects. We are especially interested in the effect of education. Although most studies find that education is associated strongly and negatively with racist attitudes, this could at least in part be due to increased social desirability effects among the better educated. The difference in the mean number of items chosen between the test group and the comparison group should be higher among college-educated respondents
than among others if this hypothesis were correct. Similar hypotheses can be formed for age and gender.

Experimental Manipulations:

To measure the extent to which social desirability curtails respondents' support for essentialist explanations of racial difference, we employ a "list experiment" design. This approach involves random assignment of survey participants to either a baseline group or an experimental (or 'test') group. Members of the baseline group were presented with three statements. None of the statements for this group were related to the construct of interest (i.e. genetic conceptualization of race). Respondents
were asked to indicate the number of statements (from zero to three) with which they agreed. However, they were instructed to not reveal which exactly were the statements with which they agreed or disagreed. The experimental group was presented with the same statements and instructions. One more item was added to the end of the list, bringing the total number of statements to four. The added "test" statement was designed to measure belief in race having a genetic underpinning. Again, respondents
in the experimental group were instructed to indicate the number of items they agreed with (which now could range from zero to four)--but not which items in particular.

Key Dependent Variables:

Estimated proportion agreeing with the item "Genetic differences contribute to income inequality between black and white people"

Additional Information:

To gauge the magnitude of the social desirability effect we introduce a third, "comparison" group of respondents. The members of this group were asked directly whether they agreed or not with each of the statements. The result is a series of proportions indicating the share of respondents who agreed with each statement. These proportions were then subtracted from our
estimates of the "true" support for the race-related fourth statements in order to calculate the magnitude of the social desirability effect.

Summary of Findings:

We show that one in five non-black Americans attribute income inequality between black and white people to unspecified genetic differences between the two groups. We also find that this number is substantially underestimated when using a direct question. The magnitude of social desirability effects varies, and is most pronounced among women, older people, and the highly-educated.


According to our data, older people, those who live in the West and Midwest, and those with higher education are more likely than others to believe in genetic causes of inequality, and at the same time, are less likely to say so. Women are just as likely as men to have such beliefs, but much less likely to admit to it. If we can corroborate these findings with the data from the telephone survey, which is still underway, our study points to a set of insights further research in the social construction of racial difference should explore more in-depth. Beliefs about genetic causes of racial inequality are especially high among the better educated, who may be most likely to be exposed to the new (and old) genetic science and therefore most likely to associate genes with social outcomes. They are also mor likely to know that expressing such beliefs would be politically incorrect, and therefore more likely to disguise their true beliefs when asked directly. This is especially important because just like women, the better educated are traditionally seen as supporters of affirmative action and other policies aimed at reducing racial inequality.


Brueckner, Hannah, Ann J. Morning, and Alondra Nelson: Expression of Biological Concepts of Race. Paper Prepared for the Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association, August, Philadelphia (2005).

Brueckner, Hannah and Alondra Nelson. 2006. The Expression of Biological Concepts of Race. Genetics and Social Structure Conference, Columbia University, March 2nd.

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