Interaction, Stereotypes and Performance: Evidence from South Africa

Interaction, Stereotypes and Performance: Evidence from South Africa

By Justine Burns, Lucia Corno, Eliana La Ferrara


Summary and Key Findings

Contemporary societies are becoming increasingly diverse along ethnic lines, and this trend has brought to the forefront of the public debate the significance of inter-group prejudice and stereotypes. Understanding if and how such stereotypes can be changed is therefore crucial to improve our ability to formulate effective policies in diverse societies.

  This project tests whether a policy designed to exogenously generate exposure to members of different racial groups induces changes in attitudes and stereotypes, and whether this translates into sizeable performance gains for the individuals involved. We study this in the context of South Africa, a country where the experience of Apartheid made people relatively prone to stereotyping and led to the economic marginalization of black South Africans. We take advantage of a policy implemented by the University of Cape Town (UCT) with the aim of promoting racial integration. This policy randomly allocates students across university residences and -in some of the residences- to roommates, thus providing a unique opportunity to estimate the causal effect of roommate's race on individual attitudes and behavior.

    Our results point to a number of positive effects from inter-racial contact generated through this policy. First, we find that living with a roommate of a different race during the first year reduces white students' negative stereotypes against blacks, as measured by the IAT. This effect is quite remarkable because a number of transformation initiatives have happened in post-apartheid South Africa that have made inroads in reducing the salience of race. Yet, the interaction generated by the random policy allocation is able to (further) reduce prejudice. We also find significant positive effects on explicit attitudes towards the other race and on inter-racial friendships, again most pronounced for white students.

    Finally, we show positive effects of inter-group contact on the academic performance of the negatively stereotyped group: black students in mixed rooms significantly improved their GPA, passed more exams and were more likely to be eligible to continue university. The latter two effects persisted during the second year of university, when most of the students were in a different residential setting. Interestingly, the prejudice level of one's roommate turns out to be a key ingredient in explaining academic gains: blacks paired with whites do better, the less prejudiced their roommate is. This is a potentially important result for the literature on academic peer effects, which has focused on the potential benefits of integration in terms of exposure to a different set of skills. Our findings point to the importance of assessing the impact of integration policies on both attitudinal measures (e.g., stereotype reduction) and performance, given that there seems to be a positive reinforcement among the two.