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La Pierre Discovers the Problem

We’ve known for a long time that we should be suspicious of this kind of data. From 1930 to 1932, Richard La Pierre, accompanied by a Chinese couple, crisscrossed the United States, twice, by car. The threesome covered about 10,000 miles, stopping at 184 restaurants and 66 hotels. And they kept records. There was a lot of prejudice against Chinese in those days, but they were not refused service in a single restaurant and just one hotel turned them away (La Pierre 1934).

Six months after the experiment ended, La Pierre sent a questionnaire to each of the 250 establishments where the group had stopped. One of the things he asked was: ‘‘Will you accept members of the Chinese race as guests?’’ Ninety-two percent—230 out of 250—replied ‘‘No.’’

By today’s standards, La Pierre’s experiment was crude. He could have surveyed a control group—a second set of 250 establishments that they hadn’t patronized but that were in the same towns where they’d stopped. With self-administered questionnaires, he couldn’t be sure that the people who answered the survey (and who claimed that they wouldn’t serve Chinese) were the same ones who had actually served the threesome. And La Pierre didn’t mention in his survey that the Chinese couple would be accompanied by a white man.

Still, La Pierre’s experiment was terrific for its time. It made clear that what people say they do (or would do) is not a proxy for what they actually do or will do (see Deutscher 1973). This basic finding shows up in what you might think were the most unlikely places: In the 1961 census of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 23% of the women underreported the number of their children. Apparently, people there didn’t count babies who die before reaching the age of 2 (Pausewang 1973:65). People in the United States often omit newborns when they fill out the Decennial Census form (Dillman et al. 2009b:225), and in China today, if a child dies soon after birth, couples may decide to report neither the birth nor the death and instead try to conceive again as quickly as possible. And, under the one-child policy, the births of female babies may not be reported at all because of the desire by couples to have a son (Merli and Rafferty 2000:110).

 
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