Affirmative action aims to address discrimination and historical disadvantages as well as to promote diversity by giving certain groups, such as women or minorities, preferential treatment in university admissions, hiring or promotions. Such policies are the subject of heated debates. Understanding which factors influence opinions on affirmative action is crucial for designing effective policies and avoiding backlash against targeted groups.
A new IZA discussion paper by Sabrina Herzog, Hannah Schildberg-Hörisch, Chi Trieu and Jana Willrodt sheds light on this important issue. The study uses population-representative data from the US and combines an experiment and a survey to understand who supports or opposes affirmative action and why.
It shows that people are more likely to support a quota if they believe they will directly benefit from it. In-group favoritism, where people favor those who are similar to themselves, plays a smaller role. Regarding personal characteristics, the study finds that it is not so much demographics like income or education but rather character traits such as altruism or a preference for efficiency that drive support for or opposition against affirmative action.
For policy makers, the study has both good and bad news. The fact that self-interest is so strongly at play means that affirmative action will always stay controversial. The belief that a policy creates equal chances for all instead of overcompensating and favoring the formerly disadvantaged group increases its acceptance, while concerns about efficiency are associated with lower support for affirmative action. Both issues can be addressed by providing correct information about the effects of affirmative action.