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The Boston Globe

Science

Science in Mind

Online marketplaces may encourage bias

Online marketplaces that allow people to peddle a place to stay or a ride in their car have been disruptive, creating communities of small sellers. But what if measures intended to foster trust between buyers and sellers online, such as sharing a photo of the seller, actually cause people to discriminate against one another based on unconscious bias?

In a new study posted online and now under review for publication, Harvard Business School economists analyzed listings on the popular online rental marketplace Airbnb.com and found that black hosts in New York City consistently charge less than nonblack hosts, even when controlling for factors such as location and apartment quality. The authors interpret the difference — nonblack hosts charged 12 percent more than black hosts for equivalent rentals — as an indication of discrimination because pricing reflects what hosts are able to charge; lower prices reflect lower demand.

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