When people look at me, they generally don’t wonder if I’m a criminal. I’ve never had a security guard follow me around a store afraid I might steal something. I’ve never had a police officer mistake my cell phone for a gun. If I were on trial for a crime, I would be less likely to be convicted and, if I were convicted, I would probably get a lighter sentence.
As a white woman from the suburbs, I’ve never been on the receiving end of negative stereotyping in the justice system. My first real foray into the issue wasn’t until graduate school. I was writing my dissertation on moral judgment and decision making, and one of the issues I decided to focus on was stereotyping in the law.
I knew that stereotyping was still very much an issue in the US, so I wasn’t surprised to see the data on racial disparities in the law. What surprised me was just how widespread the effects of stereotyping can be.
Stereotypes can affect everything from how we interpret ambiguous behavior to how we treat evidence to what we later remember about an event. They lead us to view people and situations differently, often without us even being aware of it. Stereotypes cause us to pay more attention to some things and less attention to others.
For instance, negative stereotypes can make us more likely to associate criminal behavior with the person rather than the situation. When we rely on stereotypes, we blame people’s bad behavior on their bad character rather than their unfortunate circumstances.
Stereotypes have a wide effect on our judgments, but their influence is neither straightforward nor predictable. For example, in a research study on how race affects people’s judgments in a mock trial case, researchers found that the hypothetical defendant’s race did not affect participants’ use of admissible evidence, but it did affect their use of inadmissible evidence. When participants were told that an incriminating wiretap conversation was inadmissible, they were able to ignore it for the white defendant but not for the black defendant. They used the wiretap evidence against the black defendant even when they weren’t supposed to, which resulted in harsher punishments for the black defendants.
What can we do about this problem?
Clearly this is a problem for the justice system. Defendants shouldn’t start with the deck stacked against them just because of the color of their skin or where they were born or any other factor outside their control. And this is exactly what stereotypes do: they stack the deck against a person.
But if stereotypes are often unconscious and unpredictable how can we avoid them? Research suggests that perspective-taking may be an effective strategy for reducing both the conscious and unconscious influences of stereotyping. Thinking about the situation from the other person’s point of view can help us treat the person in a more individualized manner and make us more likely to appreciate their specific situation.
We can see the positive effects of perspective-taking in a study by psychologist Mark Davis and colleagues. The researchers had participants watch an interview with a woman explaining what it is like for her to live with serious kidney problems. During the interview the woman becomes emotional and begins to cry.
Davis and colleagues found that when the research participants were told to try to remain neutral and objective when watching the interview, they distanced themselves from the woman and explicitly mentioned ways they were different from her. However, when participants were told to engage in perspective-taking by either imagining how the woman feels about what is happening to her or by imagining how they would feel if they were in the woman’s situation, they were more likely to identify with her and judge her more positively.
In other words, perspective-taking helps us empathize with the other person. It helps us see them as an individual, not as a stereotype.
This applies to more than just the law; it applies to any situation where we have to make judgments about a person’s situation and evaluate their behavior. It applies to bosses who need to decide whether to reprimand an employee. It applies to teachers who need to decide whether to grant a student an extension on their assignment. It applies to all of us.
So, next time you find yourself making a judgment about another person, don’t view them through a stereotypic lens. Instead, try imagining the situation from their point of view. Put yourself in their shoes. You might be surprised by what you see.
This post reflects the views and experiences of the author, and is intended to start a conversation. Please share your thoughts in the comments below!