Here's more evidence, as if we needed it, that many employers are lying liars and that race still matters in hiring. Even when the job is a menial one and the applicants are ex-cons, the white guy is likely to get a better shake.

To test the extent of discrimination, Princeton University sociologist Devah Pager and her colleague Lincoln Quillian of Northwestern University conducted a hiring "audit" and followup telephone survey at 199 randomly selected businesses in the greater Milwaukee area. They first sent out pairs of black and white testers to apply for entry-level and unskilled jobs advertised in the local newspaper. Half of the faux job seekers told employers that they had criminal records and half said they did not.

Pager and Quillian then surveyed these same employers about their willingness to hire ex-offenders. They also read descriptions of a potential applicant to employers, and then asked how likely the employers were to hire the person they described. They were careful to match the characteristics of the hypothetical job seeker with the characteristics of the applicants in the earlier audit, even down to the specific crimes the applicants said they had committed.

Then they compared what bosses said in the survey with what they actually did when the testers applied.

Busted!

"Employers who indicated a greater likelihood of hiring ex-offenders in the survey were no more likely to hire an ex-offender in practice," they wrote in the latest issue of the American Sociological Review. "Furthermore, although the survey results indicated no difference in the likelihood of hiring black versus white ex-offenders, audit results show large differences by race."

(In fact, these employers were three times more likely to hire the white ex-con as the black one with similar background and qualifications. Whites without records were about twice as likely to be hired over similarly qualified blacks with spotless pasts.)

Quillian and Pager claim their data suggest that attitudinal surveys of employers, a favorite technique of the government and other researchers for measuring bias in the workplace, "may be insufficient for drawing conclusions about the actual level of hiring discrimination against stigmatized groups."

The Beer Belt

A new study done in Europe suggests that fat people earn less than thin folks -- except in those countries where beer is the national beverage of choice.

A number of recent studies in the United States and elsewhere show that workers who are obese are paid less for the same job than their thinner colleagues, all other factors being equal. So Beatrice d'Hombres and Giorgio Brunello of the University of Padua in Italy were surprised when they analyzed data from nine European countries and found an unexpected pattern.

In countries of the "Olive Belt" (Spain, Italy, France, Greece and Portugal), the heavier you were, the less you earned compared to a slimmer co-worker. But in Austria, Ireland, Belgium and other countries of northern and central Europe -- which these researchers dubbed the "Beer Belt" -- fatter workers collected fatter paychecks.

For those who are wondering why obese folks are paid less -- at least outside Europe's Beer Belt -- a number of recent studies attempt to answer that question. The studies suggest that the all-wise and invisible hand of the market is at work. Compared to their thinner colleagues, obese workers are more expensive to employers in terms of health insurance claims, days of work missed and overall productivity, and their salaries reflect those factors.

What's so magical about beer in northern climes? Unfortunately, the researchers don't know, they confess in a newly released working paper published by the Institute for the Study of Labor in Bonn. "We speculate that such differences could be driven by the interaction between the weather, BMI [body mass index] and individual unobserved productivity."

The Wiz volunteers to continue this worthy research with personal visits to Europe's Beer Belt. Okay, boss? Er, what about Milwaukee?

The Eye of the Beholder

Seeing is believing, but what we actually see when we look at a scene appears to be based at least in part on cultural differences, according to University of Michigan researchers.

A team led by psychologists Hannah-Faye Chua, Julie E. Boland and Richard E. Nisbett found that Asians and Americans seem to see the world differently -- or at least focus on different parts of the scene they are looking at. They tracked the eye movements of 25 European Americans and 27 native Chinese to determine where they looked in examining a photograph and how long they focused on a particular area.

The North American students of European background, as a group, spent more time gazing at the focal object (a leopard) in the photo's foreground. Students from China spent more time studying the background (the jungle around the leopard) and absorbing the whole scene.

The researchers argue that these differences are cultural. "East Asians live in relatively complex social networks . . . . Attention to context is, therefore, important for effective functioning. Westerners live in less constraining social worlds that stress independence and allow them to pay less attention to context," they wrote in the latest issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

In a separate study by the same researchers, Japanese and American students were shown pictures of underwater scenes. Americans would go straight for the brightest or most rapidly moving object, they said, such as three trout swimming. The Japanese were more likely to report they saw a stream, the water was green, there were rocks on the bottom and then mention the fish.

morinr@washpost.com

What Parents Want From Teachers

Poor parents expect very different things from their children's teachers than more affluent parents, two Harvard economists report in a study released last month by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Economists Brian A. Jacobs of Harvard University and Lars Lefgren of Brigham Young University found that parents in more affluent areas place a premium on teachers who are good at promoting overall student satisfaction but care relatively less about a teacher's ability to raise standardized math or reading scores.

Parents in higher poverty areas "strongly value student achievement and are essentially indifferent to the principal's report of a teacher's ability to promote student satisfaction," they wrote.

They based their findings on data from an unnamed mid-size school district in the western United States.