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The Stereotype Tax

From the Blog of Phyllis G. Pollack.

       As mediators, we are trained to look for and be aware of human assumptions and hidden biases, both in ourselves and in our clients. We are taught to “people watch” – to read body language because people do not always say what they mean or mean what they say. Many times, the body language belies the spoken word. A party may say one thing while her body language is saying something completely different.

       I bring this up because of an interesting January 15, 2009 article in The Economist entitled  “The Price of Prejudice.” Its thesis is that “it’s what you do that counts – not what you say you’d do.” (Id.)

       The article discusses a study published in February 2009 in Social Cognition by a group of researchers led by Eugene Caruso of the University of Chicago. In the study, they used a technique called “conjoint analysis” adopted from market research to quantify the “stereotype tax” – “the price that the person doing the stereotyping pays for his preconceived notions.” (Id.)

       In conjoint analysis, market researchers ask participants to evaluate a series of products such as televisions with differing attributes, such as screen size, brands, and prices. By varying each of these attributes in a controlled fashion, the market researchers can determine precisely how much each trait is worth and thus how much of a premium a person is willing to pay for one particular trait, e.g. a larger screen over another, which translates into a price differential.

       Using these techniques in their study, the researchers recruited 101 students and asked them to imagine that they were participating in a team trivia game. They could win a cash prize. “Each student was presented with profiles of potential team-mates and was asked to rate them on their desirability.” (Id.)

         As Dr. Caruso explains:

      “The putative team-mates varied in several ways. Three of these were meant to correlate with success at trivia: educational level, IQ and previous experience with the game. In addition, each profile had a photo which showed whether the team-mate was slim or fat. After rating the profiles, the participants were asked to say how important they thought each attribute was in their decisions.”

      “Not surprisingly, they reported that weight was the least important factor in their choice. However, their actual decisions revealed that no other attribute counted more heavily. In fact, they were willing to sacrifice quite a bit to have a thin team-mate. They would trade 11 IQ points – about 50% of the range of IQs available – for a colleague who was suitably slender.” (Id.)

      A second study showed that the unstated bias was the sex of the boss. Potential job seekers rated various factors about a job such as starting salary, location, holiday time and the sex of the potential boss. While the participants’ decisions on salary, location and holiday time matched their stated preferences, it turns out that the boss’s sex was far more important than any other factor. Whether the participant was male or female, he/she “. . . was willing to pay a 22% tax on their starting salary to have a male boss.” (Id.)

       Upon a moment’s reflection, one can imagine the consequences of a “stereotype tax” on negotiations and mediations. For the negotiator who realizes that the other party is unconsciously operating with hidden assumptions and biases, it provides leverage, if not a windfall, in negotiating a resolution. Because the other person, unconsciously, is willing to pay this “stereotype tax,” the astute negotiator walks away with more in hand than she might have otherwise thought possible at the start of the negotiations.

       Concomitantly, the negotiator, who, unconsciously, is operating on hidden assumptions and biases, ends up “paying” far more than she should, (i.e. a “stereotype tax”), without even realizing it. By not knowing herself well, the negotiator is far less effective than she should be and gives up far more than she should to reach a resolution.

       A good negotiator must know herself well. To avoid paying the “stereotype tax,” she must be keenly and astutely aware of her assumptions and biases. Otherwise, a mediated resolution may end up being a very expensive “taxable” event.

       . . . Just something to think about.


Phyllis Pollack

Phyllis Pollack with PGP Mediation uses a facilitative, interest-based approach. Her preferred mediation style is facilitative in the belief that the best and most durable resolutions are those achieved by the parties themselves. The parties generally know the business issues and priorities, personalities and obstacles to a successful resolution as… MORE >

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