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What Counts as Discrimination? Principles of Merit Shape Fairness Perceptions
Demographic attributes frequently affect selection decisions. We provide a novel perspective of why discrimination persists: meritocratic principles lead people to perceive some demographic attributes as fair to use, rather than as discriminatory. Specifically, we theorize that perceived relevance and controllability (key merit principles) affect the degree to which demographic attributes are perceived as fair to use. Moreover, we suggest perceived relevance outweighs controllability, such that even uncontrollable attributes can be perceived as fair criteria if perceived to be outcome relevant. In four studies, we find support for our hypotheses and show how such merit principles affect individuals’ behavior and downstream consequences. Overall, we find support that principles of merit lead people to believe that even some legally protected demographic attributes are fair to use, allowing discrimination to persist.