Stereotypes about crime may not be primarily driven by race but by the assumed environment in which people live

New research suggests that stereotypes about criminal behavior are more strongly influenced by beliefs about the presumed environmental condition of individuals rather than their race. The findings, published in Evolution and Human Behavior, indicate that people are more likely to associate criminal behavior with individuals from environments characterized by desperation and unpredictability. While initial stereotypes associated certain crimes with Black individuals, these associations were weakened or disappeared when ecology information was taken into account.

The primary motivation for this study was to address the question of “why” race influences legal decision-makers in specific ways. Existing literature had primarily described the racial disparities but had not provided a coherent theoretical framework for understanding why legal decision-makers might use race as a cue to inform their judgments of guilt, culpability, and punishment.

The author of the new study proposed that many race stereotypes about criminality might actually reflect inferences of ecologically-calibrated strategies rather than inherent racial differences. They hypothesized that people might use cues related to ecology to make judgments about individuals’ propensities for criminal behavior. Specifically, they explored the idea that people might use race as a heuristic cue to infer an individual’s ecology and, consequently, their likely behavior.

In other words, people might use assumptions related to the kind of place someone grew up in to guess if they are more likely to engage in criminal behavior. For instance, if they see someone of a certain race, they might unconsciously think about the type of neighborhood or environment that person is from, and this could influence what they think about that person’s behavior, including whether they might commit crimes.

“In a previous paper, my collaborators and I demonstrated that people stereotype others based on their presumed home environments (ecologies), and that these ‘ecology stereotypes’ can help explain some race stereotypes in America,” said study author Keelah Williams, associate professor of psychology at Hamilton College. “In the current paper, I wanted to explore whether ecology stereotypes might also be driving beliefs about who is likely to commit different kinds of crime. This has important implications for potentially reducing racial bias in the justice system.”

To investigate this, Williams carried out three separate studies. The studies collectively involved a diverse group of 896 participants, drawn from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk platform, which includes a more representative sample of the U.S. population than traditional undergraduate student samples.

In the first study, Williams asked participants to rate the extent to which they believed 33 different crimes were associated with different racial groups within the United States. The findings confirmed that participants stereotypically associated certain crimes with Black individuals (such as drive-by shootings and participation in a gang) and others with White individuals (such as school shootings, serial killings, and cybercrime).

In the next two studies, participants were randomly assigned to nine possible conditions, which manipulated both ecology and race factors. They imagined Black or White individuals from desperate or hopeful ecologies or were presented with no race or ecology information. Participants rated their beliefs about the likelihood of these individuals committing four different crimes stereotypically associated with Black Americans: possession of drugs with intent to sell, resisting arrest, vehicle theft, and drive-by shootings.

Initially, without any ecology information, Black individuals were again stereotyped as more likely to commit the stereotypically “Black” crimes. In the absence of race information, individuals from desperate ecologies were viewed as more likely to commit these crimes compared to those from hopeful ecologies. When participants received both race and ecology information, the study confirmed that ecology information significantly influenced perceptions of criminality, mostly overshadowing any race-related stereotypes for these specific crimes.

For possession of drugs with intent to sell, resisting arrest, and vehicle theft, there were no significant differences in perceived likelihood between Black and White individuals from desperate or hopeful ecologies. However, there was an exception when it came to drive-by shootings. When ecology information was provided, the link between race and drive-by shootings was weakened, but participants still perceived Black Americans as slightly more likely to commit this crime.

“People from resource-poor and unpredictable ecologies are stereotyped as engaging in more criminal behavior than people from resource-rich and predictable ecologies. And because the legacy of racism means that race and ecology are intertwined in the United States, American perceivers use race as a proxy for ecology — inferring that Black people are more likely to live in poor environments, and White people are more likely to live in wealthy environments,” Williams told PsyPost.

“Therefore, in the absence of information about someone’s ecology, American perceivers stereotype Black targets as more likely to commit crimes such as drug possession, resisting arrest, and vehicle theft than White targets. But when people are provided with both race and ecology information about the targets, the stereotypes track ecology and not race: White and Black targets from resource-poor and unpredictable environments are stereotyped as equally likely to commit those crimes. And, White and Black targets from resource-rich and predictable environments are stereotyped as equally unlikely to commit those crimes.”

“Thus, beliefs about someone’s likelihood to commit certain kinds of crimes seem to be driven not by race, per se, but by inferences about the kinds of environments people supposedly come from,” Williams explained.

While the research provides valuable insights into the way we perceive criminality, it’s important to acknowledge its limitations. For instance, the study’s participants were predominantly White, and future research should aim to include a more diverse range of individuals to better understand how these perceptions vary across different racial and political backgrounds.

Moreover, the study focused on specific crimes stereotypically associated with Black individuals and may not fully capture all the nuances of race-crime associations. “There are also ‘stereotypically White’ crimes, and the pattern of results for those crimes looks a bit different,” Williams said. “In brief, it seems as though some ‘stereotypically White’ crimes, like child molestation, are not linked to ecologies in people’s minds. Instead, people see mental illness or defect as the driver of those kinds of crimes.”

“We may be able to reduce race differences in perceived criminality/dangerousness by presenting information about a person’s ecology,” the researcher added. “But it’s a separate question as to whether ecology information should be used in legal decisions, given that many cues to ecology may be outside of the person’s control. Still, it’s an exciting avenue for future research.”

The study was titled: “Stereotypes of criminality in the U.S. track ecology, not race“.

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