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Simple Jury Persuasion: Christian religious concepts increase racial prejudice

Friday, December 17, 2010
posted by Douglas Keene

We’ve written a lot about racial biases in the courtroom.  As regular readers of this blog know, we look for ways to mitigate the impact of racial biases. We believe in social justice. We also know (although we don’t like it much) that there are times when in the interests of advocacy, it is important to either fan the flame of racial prejudice or simply allow it to blossom and flower by not raising juror awareness of racism.

So when this research came out we knew we had to write about it because it’s somewhat surprising, so simple, and frankly—pretty awful. Johnson, Rowatt & LaBouff (2010) looked at the research showing correlations between measures of religiosity and racial prejudice, to see if there was a direct effect (i.e., a “causal” relationship) of religion on racial attitudes. (You know what’s coming.)

They used a concept called ‘priming’ and cite examples from previous research with which many of us are familiar. For example, the research where those holding a cup of hot coffee perceived a target person to be more ‘warm’ (i.e., generous and caring) and those holding iced coffee saw the same target person as ‘less warm’.  The current researchers examined past research featuring priming with religious concepts (such as God, religion, religious attendance) and decided they would test whether the priming-elicited activation of Christian concepts in Americans would increase racial prejudice. Historically, priming religiosity has been found to result in both positive and negative changes in attitudes and behaviors.

In other words, the literature is complex and not entirely consistent. Priming religiosity has resulted in increased pro-social behaviors, generosity, cooperation, honesty, problem-solving efforts and a decrease in moral hypocrisy. It has also resulted in increased aggression, submitting to requests for revenge, support for terrorism and altruistic punishment.

In the current study they used the words: Bible, faith, Christ, church, gospel, heaven, Jesus, Messiah, prayer, and sermon. They countered these religious primes with neutral primers (shirt, butter, switch, hammer, et cetera). Then they measured racial attitudes toward African Americans. After performing two different experiments (one measuring subtle prejudice and the second measuring overt prejudice)—they found that

“activation of Christian religious concepts increases subtle and overt prejudice towards a racially disadvantaged group”.

The researchers hypothesize that priming the Christian religious concepts fosters in-group pro-sociality and out-group antagonism. In other words, it raises love of those like yourself, and dislike of those who are different. This has been found in the authors’ previous research as well—priming Christian religion led to significant increases in negative attitudes toward gay men, Muslims and atheists (Johnson & Rowatt, 2009).

So what does this mean for litigation advocacy? We think quite a lot. While we have written on when to talk about racial bias in court and when to stay quiet, the findings of this research could certainly be added to the ‘when to stay quiet’ strategies.

We are based in Texas but are frequently called upon to work in far corners of our country. We often hear attorneys using religious references or talking about their Sunday School class in the Bible Belt states. They are doing it as a means of relating to jurors their shared beliefs and values. It says “I am like you, and what I represent is our common belief.” What this research suggests is that they may also be unwittingly ‘priming’ jurors to have more negative racial attitudes by activating ‘in group’ (‘the white people with whom I worship’) versus ‘out group’ (all those black folks out there) reactivity.

So if you are representing an African American client—you may want to avoid those religious similarity references because they could activate biases against your client. You want to play up similarities between your client and the jury that do not include religious activities (which would draw attention to your clients ‘differentness’). If you are inclined to make use of religious allusion or rhetoric, include a discussion of the risk of racism very overtly, to avoid the priming affect.

Race is a complicated thing but what is disturbing is the results of this study are not correlational but rather showing a direct effect of religion on bias against African Americans. The authors hasten to report that their findings were “small but significant” and reflect a “negative shift in existing racial attitudes and that the direction of the shift represents a slight but significant increase in racial prejudice”. Sometimes that little push is all a deliberating jury needs to find against the African American party.

Be careful out there.

Johnson, MK, Rowatt, WC, & LaBouff, J. (2010). Priming Christian religious concepts increases racial prejudice. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 1 (2).

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20 Responses to “Simple Jury Persuasion: Christian religious concepts increase racial prejudice”

  1. […] read a blog post yesterday from jury consultant Douglas Keene who said something very […]

  2. [...] From Jury Room: “Simple Jury Persuasion: Christian religious concepts increase racial prejudice” [...]

  3. Hi Steve–Great question. My guess is because they were using one word ‘primers’ and “love they neighbor as thyself” is not a primer–but more of a strategy to get jurors to think consciously about how they are making decisions and interfering with/mitigating prejudicial thought processes than it is simply ‘priming’ so the researchers could see what would happen. You will see that what we recommend doing is a variation on “love they neighbor as thyself” in that it pushes the listener to think about what they are doing rather than automatically processing with stereotypes that feed biases.

  4. Steve Foster says:

    Why didn’t they use “Love thy neighbor as thyself” as a primer?

  5. #Christian #religious concepts increase racial #prejudice re #Jury Deliberations http://ht.ly/3seVm

  6. #Christian #religious concepts increase racial #prejudice re #Jury Deliberations http://ht.ly/3seVn

  7. D S says:

    Were all the “jurors” in this study white and Christian? … I would be very curious to see the effect of priming on Christian themes for non-Christians and/or People of Color. With Christian religious concepts as pervasive as they are in the U.S., would non-Christians also be susceptible?

  8. Re: Kathrin P. Ivanovic,

    Katherine, thank you for your thoughtful comment. Our goal here is to understand the complex interactions between values and behavior with respect to litigation advocacy, and we don’t mean to endorse one response or another to it. While I would prefer to live in a world in which these dynamics have no place, well, here we are… We have written a great deal about strategies for nullifying or at least mitigating racial bias, and most of them are active, not at all hiding. I would enjoy your comments on our papers and blog posts that address this topic. For the blog posts you might want to read:

    Simple Jury Persuasion: When to talk about racial bias and when to stay quiet (12.103)

    Simple Jury Persuasion: Countering jury decision-making biases (7.809)

    For the papers, you can find them at the “Articles” page of our website, http://www.keenetrial.com/articles.html. The major article addressing racial bias requires registration, but that is both free and simple to manage.

    Thanks again for your adding to the discussion,

    Doug Keene

  9. Kathrin P. Ivanovic says:

    Thank you for sharing this research with us. It only confirms the experiences of people of color for generations. What i find most disturbing is that the experiences of people of color needed to be validated by a study, implying that the experiences of people of color can’t really be trusted.

    What I also find interesting is your suggestion to not rile up white folks, that if we just keep them calm and not trigger their racism, people of color will be less likely to be found guilty due to some person or persons prejudice rather than set free because the facts warrant it. Isn’t that just perpetuating and validating prejudice and racist attitudes?

  10. #Christian #religious concepts increase racial #prejudice re #Jury Deliberations http://ht.ly/3seN4

  11. Simple Jury Persuasion: Christian religious concepts increase racial prejudice | The Jury Room http://fb.me/EeHGIQj4

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  13. [...] News] Female Squirrels' Promiscuity Explained[Slate] Bite Me Razib’s Delicious FeedSimple Jury Persuasion: Christian religious concepts increase racial prejudice | The Jury RoomAlcoholics beware: Genetic variation linked to liver cirrhosis in CaucasiansThe birth of time: [...]

  14. If this effect is reproduced reliably–when representing African American clients (and perhaps others)–the issue of racial bias may need to be raised overtly to counteract the automatic bias triggered (or perhaps simply strengthened) by religious priming. [We've written about this a lot--you can find prior posts under the category of 'Bias'.] The article this post is based on is disturbing in many ways. While your comment may have been somewhat tongue in cheek–the issues of bias against those we see as “different” than us are insidious. The more awareness we have of how biases are strengthened, triggered, and/or related to our own communication style–the better the chance of fair(er) advocacy.

  15. Greg Shenaut says:

    To the extent that this effect is produced reliably, several things follow from it that might be relevant: religious artifacts in the courtroom like statues of Bibles and praying hands or framed pictures of the Ten Commandments could also be potent “primers” of everyone present; certain kinds of laws (marriage, abortion) are founded primarily upon religious arguments, which could act as a kind of inherent primer; religious courts of all kinds would also tend to prime the same kinds of impulses. One might also add oaths that use a Bible or mention a deity, or even fairly casual things like blessing someone who sneezed or common phrases like “thank God” or “God willing”. Who knows where this could end?

  16. RT @elkedas: Jezus! Als je on jury duty was, zou je de verdachte homo, moslim of atheist eerder veroordelen. http://bit.ly/hdzsDp Simpel …

  17. RT @elkedas: Jezus! Als je on jury duty was, zou je de verdachte homo, moslim of atheist eerder veroordelen. http://bit.ly/hdzsDp Simpel …

  18. Elke Das says:

    Jezus! Als je on jury duty was, zou je de verdachte homo, moslim of atheist eerder veroordelen. http://bit.ly/hdzsDp Simpele beinvloeding.

  19. Priming auf Religiöse Figuren hin stärkt also Vorurteile gegenüber Fremden? Sounds like Cpt. Obvious… http://j.mp/gVRmdJ

  20. Jay Walters says:

    RT @KeeneTrial: New blog post: Simple Jury Persuasion: Use Christian religious concepts 2 increase racial prejudice http://bit.ly/exHyZm

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