If race is still an issue in arenas such as sports, the justice system, and hiring, how does it play out in our social lives? Emir Kamenica, professor of economics at Chicago Booth, Columbia University's Raymond J. Fisman and Sheena Iyengar, and Stanford University's Itamar Simonson wondered how race might be involved in dating choices. The rate of interracial marriage in the United States is only about 5%–10%. So what's going on when people are still single?
The team set up a speed-dating event at a restaurant in New York near Columbia University, where students were recruited for the study. The participants knew it was an experiment about dating, but they didn't know it involved race. The team tracked what matches were made, and how those varied according to race, intelligence, success, and other variables.
They found that 47% of the matches were interracial, far higher than the interracial-marriage rate. Women were particularly likely to prefer men of their own race, while older people and people who were rated as more attractive were less likely to have same-race preferences.
It's unclear why racial preferences in dating exist, and why their intensity varies by gender: Just as the females of many species are often the choosier ones, might there be evolutionary reasons behind why women are pickier about the race of their potential mates?
Not likely, says Kamenica. When the researchers compared equally picky men and women, who in equal proportion requested follow-up dates with the people they met speed dating, "even here, we find women are much more sensitive to race than men."
Another study, by Günter J. Hitsch, professor of marketing at Chicago Booth, along with the University of Chicago's Ali Hortaçsu and Duke University's Dan Ariely, found similar racial preferences in online dating. Looking at the behavior of 22,000 people who used a dating website in 2003, Hitsch and his colleagues also found that most people not only preferred their own race, but women exhibited stronger same-race preferences than men.
How and whether racial preferences are related to racial bias is tough. It's hard to know where one begins and the other ends, but Kamenica says the two aren't totally separate. On the issue of whether racial preferences in dating will dissolve over time, he says, "One would hope! You'd like to think that racial preferences in general would dissipate. But it's hard to predict."
Researchers can speculate about why these behaviors exist, and Kamenica says economics can only take the question so far. Demonstrating the divide is different from addressing the reason behind it. Perhaps sociologists and evolutionary biologists will find an answer.
Raymond J. Fisman, Sheena Iyengar, Emir Kamenica, and Itamar Simonson, "Racial Preferences in Dating," Review of Economic Studies, January 2008.
Günter J. Hitsch, Ali Hortaçsu, and Dan Ariely, "What Makes You Click?—Mate Preferences in Online Dating," Quantitative Marketing and Economics, December 2010.