SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. I was on Facebook the other day when a friend request came in. I don't have a great memory for faces and names, so I found myself trying to figure out if I had met this person somewhere. But then at the back of my mind, I remembered a study. It said my friendship choices on Facebook might be shaped by biases outside of my conscious awareness, in my hidden brain. Michelle Hebl is a psychologist at Rice University who ran the Facebook study. She designed fictitious profiles for two men and two women. Both men were named Michael Davis. Both women were Jennifer Davis. All the characters were African-American. The only real difference between the profiles were the photos. One Photoshopped version of Michael Davis and Jennifer Davis had lighter skin. The other had darker skin. Mikki Hebl sent out friend requests on Facebook on behalf of these fictitious characters to more than a thousand people in a big American city. Since these were invented characters, most of the requests were declined. But there was a big disparity in how often whites accepted friend requests from the darker-skinned Michaels and Jennifers.
MICHELLE HEBL: People were less likely to friend them. They were less likely particularly to friend the dark black males.
VEDANTAM: If you follow these kinds of experiments, this finding is disappointing but not surprising. Using similar experimental methods, researchers have found disparities in the way professors spend time with students, how companies select job applicants for interviews, even how legislators respond to constituents. But something new is happening today. The bias decisions we once made in interpersonal settings are now being made on giant online platforms, where our actions have the potential to affect many more people. Think about the way you might look for a roommate. Once upon a time, you may have put up a flyer on a bulletin board and talked to people who responded. Today, you might turn to sites such as roommates.com or Craigslist. Raj Ghoshal, a sociologist at Goucher College in Baltimore, recently conducted a roommate study on Craigslist using a technique similar to the one Mikki Hebl used on Facebook.
RAJ GHOSHAL: We definitely found a pattern of preference or bias in favor of white-sounding names. So for every 100 replies that a white-sounding name got, a Latina name got about 75, and an African-American name got about 65 or something like that.
VEDANTAM: That is a huge difference.
GHOSHAL: It's a pretty big difference, right? So if you were African-American, you'd have to spend about one and a half times as much time applying for housing as would somebody with a white name.
VEDANTAM: On today's podcast, we're going to delve into what happens when age-old biases rear their heads in a new and growing part of our lives, what's sometimes called the sharing economy.
HEBL: It's one thing if I want to discriminate about who I'm going to have over on Friday night to have for dinner or who I want to have sleep over. But it's another thing when my private house starts to become my business.
VEDANTAM: The sharing economy, platforms that allow you to hail a taxi, call a babysitter, find a room on Airbnb, rely on making what used to be business exchanges into semi-personal transactions. Your Uber driver sees your name and photograph. You see your driver's name and photo. It's supposed to increase trust, and there's every reason to think it does. But it also does something else.
HEBL: When you give people names, then you give people information about your ethnicity. You give people information that they can use to look you up and figure out more cues about you, and that becomes problematic.
VEDANTAM: Mikki was on a ship when I interviewed her. She's teaching a semester at sea. During the long voyage, she says, her students tell her about the many online platforms that they are using.
HEBL: There's a website called care.com, and it's a babysitting website where people advertise themselves as babysitters. And they have to put a picture of themselves on. So you can think about how, again, maybe I don't want a babysitter that is of that race. Maybe I don't want a babysitter that is of that gender. And so you begin to see where this very subtle type of discrimination can be very systemic.
VEDANTAM: The sharing economy is unleashing new possibilities in our lives. These platforms allow us to meet more people, visit more places, get more connected. I'm personally a fan of many apps. But it also seems clear to me that these platforms provide a mechanism to amplify our collective bias. What's especially insidious about the biases on these platforms is that their consequences are largely hidden. If your request to be a babysitter gets turned down, you have no way of knowing if this was driven by racial bias. So I asked HIDDEN BRAIN producers Maggie Penman and Max Nesterak to take a few weeks and try to find people who were personally affected by such biases. They decided to focus on an important new part of the sharing economy, Airbnb.
MAGGIE PENMAN, BYLINE: Imagine you're going on vacation with some friends. You do a quick search online, find a few hotels in the city you'd like to stay in. You pick one, ideally with a hot tub, and enter your credit card information. Great, you think, all set.
MAX NESTERAK, BYLINE: But then you get an email. We're sorry, but the dates you just booked aren't available after all. They were listed by mistake.
PENMAN: Now if this happened to you once, you might chalk it up to a weird website glitch. But if it happened to you over and over, something would start to feel funny. You might start to feel like it's something about you that's making these hotels suddenly unavailable.
NESTERAK: This is exactly how could Quirtina Crittenden felt when she would try to use Airbnb to book vacations with her friends. She would find a house that was listed as available, send a booking request.
QUIRTINA CRITTENDEN: And I would get declined all the time.
PENMAN: Quirtina got a bunch of similar responses.
CRITTENDEN: The host would always come up with excuses like, oh, someone actually just booked it or, oh, some of my regulars are coming in town, and they're going to stay there. I just haven't updated my calendar. But I got suspicious when I would check back, like, days later and see that those dates were still available.
NESTERAK: Quirtina's black. And this is relevant because on Airbnb, both hosts and guests have their names and photos prominently displayed on their profiles.
PENMAN: And this is actually one of the platform's selling points. It's supposed to make these transactions between strangers feel less anonymous and less scary.
NESTERAK: But it also made Quirtina start to wonder if these rejections had something to do with her race.
CRITTENDEN: My name is Quirtina. I have a very black-sounding name. And I also had my photos, so I'm very clearly a black woman.
NESTERAK: And when she looked at the reviews that previous guests had left for these hosts...
CRITTENDEN: I never saw anybody who looked like me.
PENMAN: So, Quirtina did what any good millennial does when they're frustrated. She took to Twitter.
CRITTENDEN: And I was just venting my frustrations, and I just included a lot of screenshots of the messages that I was getting from people. And I put the #AirbnbWhileBlack.
NESTERAK: She started hearing from lots of friends who had similar experiences...
CRITTENDEN: The most common response that I got was, oh, yeah, that's why I don't use my photo. Like, duh (laughter), like, I was the late one.
NESTERAK: ...And one friend who hadn't.
CRITTENDEN: One of my friends who is actually black, he responded to me and said, well, I've never had an issue. And then he went back and checked his profile, and I guess he'd never wanted to use his photo. So he realized that the whole time he had been using a photo of some random white guy from our school, and so he's like, oh, maybe this is why I've never had an issue.
PENMAN: So, Quirtina decided to tweak her profile.
CRITTENDEN: I shortened my name to just Tina, which is a name that I go by in work and in other settings. And I changed my photo to a landscape. Ever since I changed my name and my photo, I've never had any issues on Airbnb.
PENMAN: Now it's impossible to say exactly why Quirtina was rejected by those specific hosts.
NESTERAK: But a recent study shows racial discrimination on Airbnb is widespread.
MICHAEL LUCA: I'm Michael Luca. I'm a faculty member at Harvard Business School. I'm an assistant professor of business administration.
PENMAN: Michael Luca and his colleagues, Benjamin Edelman and Dan Svirsky, sent out fake Airbnb requests to real-life hosts.
LUCA: So we sent out 6,400 requests to stay with people, and we kept every request the same.
NESTERAK: The only thing that was different about the requests, the profiles attached to them either had African-American-sounding names or white-sounding names.
PENMAN: So, like, does Brad get the same number of responses on Airbnb as Jamaal?
NESTERAK: And unfortunately...
LUCA: We could see that there was a very different response rate and acceptance rate for African-American guests relative to white guests. Having an African-American name leads to roughly a 15 percent lower chance of being accepted as a guest on Airbnb relative to having a distinctively white name, holding all else constant.
NESTERAK: To put this in perspective, Airbnb isn't some little startup anymore.
PENMAN: It's one of the largest players in the hotel industry worldwide. In 2015, more than 2 million listings were offered on the platform from hosts around the world. That's nearly four times as many rooms as the Marriott hotel chain.
NESTERAK: You can even rent a castle.
PENMAN: You can even rent a castle. And it's not just vacation rentals. People are finding housing on this platform for months at a time. So discrimination on Airbnb is discrimination in the housing market.
NESTERAK: Michael Luca and his colleagues think people could be discriminating without even knowing it.
LUCA: Bias for a lot of people is something that is accidental.
NESTERAK: What Michael Luca is talking about is unconscious bias, these hidden associations we have that affect our behavior without us realizing it. It's unlikely that most hosts are saying to themselves, I'm going to reject this person because I don't want to rent to a black person.
PENMAN: I mean, maybe some people are intentionally discriminating.
NESTERAK: There are probably some people like that. But, Michael Luca suspects the way Airbnb's platform is designed is triggering the associations people have of some racial groups. So because names and photos are the first thing people see, it may also be one of the first things they consider, consciously or unconsciously, when choosing a place to stay. He and his colleagues looked at five major cities in the U.S., and discrimination was happening across the board.
LUCA: We saw that there was discrimination among cheap listings, expensive listings, in diverse neighborhoods, in homogenous neighborhoods, among white hosts and among African-American hosts.
DAVID KING: I actually spoke to Mike Luca last week.
PENMAN: That's David King, the brand-new director of diversity and belonging at Airbnb. He knows this is a problem, and he wants Airbnb to be a leader on fixing it.
KING: There is a racial bias in platforms, and we are working with Mike Luca and any other external interested parties into how do we address and fix this problem.
NESTERAK: One thing that could fix the problem is just getting rid of names and photos or making them less prominent. But Airbnb doesn't think that would improve their platform.
KING: The photos are on the platform for a reason. Number one, it really does help to aid in the trust between the guest and the host. And then secondary to that is safety. You want to make sure that that guest that shows up at your door is the person that you've been communicating with.
PENMAN: But, David King also pointed out there's a lot of opportunity for Airbnb to do good. They're bringing together people from all different backgrounds who wouldn't normally meet.
KING: We've done some recent reports in Chicago and New York, pointing out that undeserved communities, especially African-American communities, have benefited quite a bit from our platform, usually in neighborhoods where there are few hotels.
NESTERAK: One of those neighborhoods with few hotels is Washington, D.C.'s Anacostia. The neighborhood is on the edge of city limits on the other side of the Anacostia River from the capital and the Washington Monument. It's a neighborhood with a lot of big box stores and empty lots but also rowhouses and families that go back generations. We went there to visit Airbnb host Synta Keeling.
SYNTA KEELING: Hi, how are you?
NESTERAK: Hi, how are you?
PENMAN: Synta owns a three-story townhouse in a new development. She rents out two rooms on Airbnb. There's a fitness room, cable and high-speed Internet, solar panels and slippers for all of her guests.
PENMAN: I love the slippers, first of all.
KEELING: (Laughter) Ikea.
NESTERAK: Synta is a super host, and we're not just saying that because of the slippers. It's an official designation she's earned from Airbnb based on positive reviews from her guests, her responsiveness to booking requests and the fact that she's never canceled a booking. It shows Airbnb travelers she's been verified as a good person to stay with. Synta says as a black host in a black neighborhood, that's important. She feels like she gets held to a higher standard than other hosts.
KEELING: This neighborhood's called Capital View, and it's 98 percent African-American, double-digit unemployment.
PENMAN: We asked Synta whether her race and the racial composition of her neighborhood made it harder to get guests. And she said...
KEELING: Absolutely (laughter). Yeah, no, I had one - I've had some instances where people will ask me all these questions about is it unsafe and this, and I'll say, you know, I'm a black Filipino woman. I take - we take great pride in our community. This is absolutely a good place for you to stay. And I'll say those things, and then there will be crickets. They'll just not book.
PENMAN: But, Synta also said there were great things about Airbnb. For one thing, it brings her a steady second income.
NESTERAK: Airbnb brings business to the stores and restaurants that don't typically benefit from the tourism industry. It might even help change people's perceptions of Anacostia. Airbnb's slogan is belong anywhere, and there's some truth to it.
PENMAN: Synta Keeling told us a story about one of her guests that drove this message home. He came back from being out for the day and told her...
KEELING: I took the bus back, and I was the only white person on the bus, and it was all these black people. And I asked myself, were they going to hurt me? Am I unsafe? And then I realized they weren't hurting me, and nothing was going to happen to me. Like, they were just sitting there normal. And he was saying this in a way that he was like he mentally realized the horridness of what he was saying, where at the same time, he was just being honest about what he was thinking and that he arrived at the stop and just had come off. And, like, nothing had happened to him, and it was just this shock.
NESTERAK: Synta says she knows that some people won't rent from her because she's a black host in a predominantly black neighborhood.
PENMAN: But here's the thing. She's glad those people don't book with her.
KEELING: The strange thing about Airbnb that makes it tough is I really don't want a racist guest in my house because I don't - I live here in this space, so I don't need to feel uncomfortable, you know, the other way. But if you just feel like, well, you know, maybe I'll give this a shot, then I'm willing to be open-minded.
PENMAN: The fact is Airbnb is not the same thing as a major hotel chain. Hosts have discretion on the platform, but guests don't have the same legal recourse as hotel customers if they feel they've been discriminated against.
NESTERAK: We spoke to a couple lawyers for this story, and the legal picture is a little murky here. It isn't clear who, if anyone, is liable for discrimination on a web-based platform.
PENMAN: So Airbnb does offer this opportunity to experience different cultures, to meet people you wouldn't normally meet. But sometimes hidden bias is getting in the way.
NESTERAK: And people like Quirtina and Synta are paying the price.
VEDANTAM: That's Maggie Penman and Max Nesterak, reporting on people who feel they have personally experienced bias in the sharing economy. When we come back, Maggie, Max and I will discuss potential solutions to the problem.
VEDANTAM: This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. We're exploring the many ways in which the sharing economy might allow hidden biases to flourish. As apps in the sharing economy become an increasingly large part of our lives, they have the potential to create great disparities. Producers Maggie Penman and Max Nesterak are in the studio with me now to talk about potential solutions. Hi, Max.
NESTERAK: Hi, Shankar.
VEDANTAM: Hey, Maggie.
PENMAN: Hey, Shankar.
VEDANTAM: Maggie, if I understand correctly, Airbnb actually gives hosts a mechanism to avoid this problem.
PENMAN: It's true. There is this feature called Instant Book, and it's exactly what it sounds like. Basically, as a guest, you can book a room just like you would a hotel without waiting to be accepted by the host.
VEDANTAM: Why would hosts want to offer this option?
PENMAN: Well, it's much more convenient for guests, so I think you're more likely to get bookings if you offer Instant Book. And then it's also easy for hosts because if you're renting out your whole house and you don't really care who stays there, you can just offer this option and not deal with it.
VEDANTAM: And is there any evidence that this feature is actually being used to avoid discrimination on Airbnb?
PENMAN: Yeah, Max and I actually talked to this guy, Reid Kennedy (ph). He's African-American, and his experience with Airbnb was very similar to Quirtina's.
REID KENNEDY: And so after being rejected and I think in that case four times within the same day for reasons again that weren't specified, I started to see a pattern.
PENMAN: So, Reid complained to Airbnb, and Airbnb gave him a credit. But he was struggling to use this credit because he was still having trouble booking a place. So he used Instant Book.
KENNEDY: And ironically, the host was a black man, who may have been using the Instant Book feature for the same reason I was.
VEDANTAM: So, Max, what I'm hearing Maggie say is that there might be a designed solution for the psychological problem of bias.
NESTERAK: Yeah, and this is similar to a solution that Michael Luca came up with. He worked with a computer scientist, and they developed this Google Chrome app called Debias Yourself. It removes photos and names from people's profiles so you can't discriminate even by accident.
PENMAN: And didn't Michael Luca say he actually got this idea from orchestras?
NESTERAK: He did. So it used to be that back in the day, orchestras were overwhelmingly male, and people may have thought, oh, there's just more male musicians, or maybe they're just better. But then there started to be a shift in orchestras where there were more women. And researchers went back and looked at this, and they found that there had been a change to the audition process, where there was now a screen in between the judges and the person auditioning. And Mike Luca says this is something that Airbnb should be doing only on a larger scale.
LUCA: One of the things that I love about the digital world is that it gives us the opportunity to choose exactly where to put screens and where not to put screens. So I think we have a host of new decisions that we can make as market designers that will decide how inclusive a society we have or how much discrimination we want to encourage or allow.
VEDANTAM: I have to say, it might not all be about the information that you're hiding. It could also be about the information that you're emphasizing. Raj Ghoshal - this is the sociologist at Goucher College who did the study on Craigslist - suggested that we might want to be playing up certain kinds of information.
GHOSHAL: Perhaps colleges and universities can play a role in this, and perhaps websites like Craigslist or roommates.com could do more to actually, like, frontload information about people's living habits or cultural identities, what time people get up and go to bed, what level of messy they are, that sort of thing rather than immediately hitting people over the head with somebody's name just because, you know, all of the evidence we have, evidence from other studies just suggests that, like, race and names is such a powerful signal to people that we probably don't actually want it to be the first thing or the immediate thing that the people see in our deciding bias.
PENMAN: Yeah, that's a really interesting idea. Another option would be to offer trainings about unconscious bias to hosts. So Airbnb has actually already taken the step of training their employees and some hosts in recognizing and combating unconscious bias. And maybe if they make that information available on a larger scale, hosts will start to check their own biases.
NESTERAK: Another idea that we've heard is to provide feedback to hosts. So Airbnb could send hosts an email saying, here are the requests you received, and here are the guests you accepted. Now if someone doesn't want to host people from certain racial groups, this feedback wouldn't do much. But for those who might not mean to discriminate, it could be enough to nudge them in the right direction.
VEDANTAM: Well, that's interesting stuff. Thanks so much, Max.
NESTERAK: Thank you.
VEDANTAM: Thanks, Maggie.
PENMAN: Thanks, Shankar.
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VEDANTAM: The HIDDEN BRAIN podcast is produced by Kara McGuirk-Alison, Maggie Penman and Max Nesterak. If you like this episode, consider giving us a review on iTunes. It will help other people find the podcast. We're going to be talking about this episode on social media using the #AirbnbWhileBlack. Do join the conversation. I'm Shankar Vedantam, and this is NPR.