People Accounting: Social Category-Based Choice

Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Forthcoming

26 Pages Posted: 1 Sep 2006

See all articles by Stephen M. Garcia

Stephen M. Garcia

University of Michigan

Oscar Ybarra

University of Michigan at Ann Arbor


This paper presents people accounting - a hypothesis that describes how a simple numerical imbalance in representation along nominal social category lines can affect people's choice of candidates in highly competitive situations (e.g., awards, jobs, etc.). For example, two scholarship finalists from California and New York may be equally qualified, but the award-winning chance for the California candidate will drop precipitously if 8 of the past 10 winners were from California. Studies 1-3 illustrate this effect. Study 4 reveals people accounting is linked to intergroup fairness concerns and is more likely to occur when the category line is meaningful (e.g., Stanford/Princeton) than when it is not (e.g., left/right-handedness). Study 5 shows that candidates from overrepresented categories (e.g., "Californians") must achieve higher minimum standards in order to be selected. The implication is that highly competitive decisions are often influenced by headcounts along mundane social category lines.

Keywords: Social Categories, Decision Making, Allocations, Fairness, Affirmative Action, Competition

JEL Classification: D6, J1, J5, J7, C7

Suggested Citation

Garcia, Stephen M. and Ybarra, Oscar, People Accounting: Social Category-Based Choice. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Forthcoming. Available at SSRN:

Stephen M. Garcia (Contact Author)

University of Michigan ( email )

741 Dennison Hall
Ann Arbor, MI 48109
United States
734-615-2561 (Phone)


Oscar Ybarra

University of Michigan at Ann Arbor ( email )

500 S. State Street
Ann Arbor, MI 48109
United States

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