The cultural divide is real, and it’s huge. Americans live such different lives that what we buy, do or watch can be used to predict our politics, race, income, education and gender — sometimes with more than 90 percent accuracy.
It turns out that people are separated not just by gun ownership, religion and their beliefs on affirmative action — but also by English muffins, flashlights and mustard.
To prove it, University of Chicago economists Marianne Bertrand and Emir Kamenica taught machines to guess a person’s income, political ideology, race, education and gender based on either their media habits, their consumer behavior, their social and political beliefs, and even how they spent their time. Their results were released in a new working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research.
The duo trained their algorithms to detect patterns in decades of responses to three long-running surveys, each with between 669 and 22,093 responses per year. The surveys were tuned and filtered to be consistent over time, which allowed Bertrand and Kamenica to measure how America’s cultural divides have evolved.
To determine how accurately cultural factors predicted a person’s race, education or income tier, the duo tested their algorithms on subsets of the data that the programs had never seen. To keep it fair, they omitted variables that would have been a dead giveaway — if they were predicting whether someone was liberal or conservative, for example, they wouldn’t allow the algorithms to consider the answer to “Which political party do you support?”
Nevertheless, some results are obvious, which indirectly proves that their approach can detect tangible divides. Spending predicts gender with almost perfect accuracy, for example, because men don’t buy nearly much mascara as women do, and women buy much less aftershave/cologne than men do. But others are revelatory: White people and black people are almost as different in their spending habits as rich people and poor people are, for example.
Differences in social attitudes between liberals and conservatives have been widened over time, Bertrand and Kamenica found. The gap in social attitudes between whites and nonwhites has fallen slightly, but the difference in consumer behavior between races has grown.
In the world of television in 2016, some of the top-ten predictors of whiteness were watching “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “American Pickers,” “The Big Bang Theory” and the Kentucky Derby. If we’re looking at specific brand names, the top 10 included Thomas’ English muffins, Sweet Baby Ray’s barbecue sauce and Stove Top stuffing.
More generally, in consumer products, the best predictor of whiteness was whether someone owned a pet — followed closely by whether they owned a flashlight. Many of the differences appear to be correlated with wealth and homeownership, areas in which America suffers from vast racial disparities.
The Federal Reserve has found that the median net worth of a white household in 2016 was 9.7 times greater than that of a black one.
Each analysis is binary, meaning that although the authors frame everything in terms of predicting whether someone is…