Cognitive discrimination - a benchmark experimental study

Michele Belot

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This study provides experimental evidence for a cognitive mechanism underlying racial discrimination. Specifically, we study memory biases in the ability to remember people within and across races, in a context where there is no difference in the distribution of payoffs across racial groups. Participants see pictures of people - whom we call candidates - of White and East Asian origin, learn payoff-relevant information about them and then are asked to identify the candidates associated with the highest payoffs. I find that people are much better
able to recall candidates with higher payoffs if they are of the same race.
Candidates of the other race are more likely to be confused with each other. This leads to positive and negative discrimination at the same time: those at the bottom of the distribution benefit while those at the top lose out. These results suggest that cognitive biases could play a role in the nature of cross-racial relations, in particular for phenomena relying on repeated interactions and individual recognition, such as the formation and maintenance of social ties and the establishment of trust relationships.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)173-185
JournalJournal of Neuroscience, Psychology, and Economics
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Sep 2015


  • Statistical discrimination
  • Bounded
  • Memory


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