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Archive for the ‘Bias’ Category

euphemism treadmillIt’s a constantly moving target. Just over a year ago, we wrote about this on-going question and cited a Gallup Poll saying 65% of Black Americans have no preference when it comes to labels used to describe their racial or ethnic group. The authors of today’s research article would disagree. They say there are consequences (and loads of meaning) behind the two labels.

Stephen Pinker first coined the phrase euphemism treadmill in 1994. The phrase refers to a descriptive term that was once acceptable, but has now become pejorative. An example would be the word “crippled”, replaced by “handicapped”, which was then replaced by the phrase “person with disabilities” or, in some circles, “differently challenged”. When you write, and use an outdated, once acceptable but now pejorative phrase, you run the risk of being seen as biased, unaware, old school, or downright insensitive.

So, in 2013, Gallup said it really didn’t matter. Today’s writers demonstrate, via four separate studies, that we have very different associations to the labels “African-American” and “Black”. Specifically, we make assumptions about “Blacks” being lower in social status, less educated, and less competent than the “African-American”. In brief, here are their findings:

The label “Black” signals lower social class and status than does the label “African-American”. Further, the label “Black” evokes more negative stereotype content (as well as assumptions of lower status and less feelings of warmth) than does the label “African-American”.

Media articles on crime reports are more negative in emotional tone when they use the label “Black” then when they use the label “African-American”.

Whites view a criminal suspect more negatively when s/he is identified as “Black” rather than “African-American”.

The dilemma with these two polarizing labels (“Black” and “African-American) is that White observers are attaching presumptions based on racial labels. Instead of using either of these long-standing descriptors, these authors propose the use of a new descriptor: Americans of African Descent (AADs). Their belief is that use of a new label will short-circuit the stereotypes (positive and negative) that accompany the currently used labels and require judgements to occur based on the individual. Whether this will catch on or not, is anyone’s guess. But, staying on top of trends and labels is an important part of the work for all of us.

So, is it “Black” or is it “African-American”?

Or, should it perhaps be “Americans of African Descent”?

As mentioned above, Gallup says it doesn’t seem to really matter to the target individuals being described. But today’s authors say it matters a lot to the listener as “Black” and “African-American” have become cognitive shortcuts for many of us. So what to say?

The cynical might say it all depends on the reaction you want to evoke in the listener. That would mean that if you want to evoke a less positive attribution to a person, use the word “Black”, and if you want to imbue them with more of an upscale aura, use “African-American”. Either can be used to evoke the more negative or the more positive associations.

Our guess would be it’s a lot more nuanced than that. While there were a few more than 370 participants across four studies, we would like to see a bit larger sample to ascertain whether this stereotyping of racial labels occurs across the country or if it is limited to certain regions. We also don’t really know what stereotypes might arise if someone was described as an “American of African Descent”. Further, who knows how long the new label will encounter resistance, or how and when it might be co-opted by time.

In short, it’s an intriguing variable to consider. Are we indeed evoking racial stereotypes when we describe individuals as either “Black” or “African-American”? Is that what we really mean to do?

Hall, EV, Phillips, KW, & Townsend, SSM (2014). A rose by any other name? The consequences of subtyping “African-Americans” from “Blacks”. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 


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mother of all gender gapsWe follow, as you may have noticed, attitudes, values and beliefs toward a wide variety of issues. So we were surprised to see this 2012 national poll from Quinnipiac University pop up in a number of recent blog posts. According to their survey, while Americans favored the legalization of marijuana (51% to 44%) there were significant age and gender gaps.

“Men support legalization 59 to 36% but women are opposed 52 to 44%.”

Younger voters, “18-29 years old support legalization 67 to 29% while voters over age 65 are opposed 56 to 35%.”

For some reason, a number of blogs picked up the survey about 2 years after it was completed and questioned why the gender gap in attitudes toward marijuana legalization existed. Michele Martinez Campbell at Narcolaw wonders if, as others have posited, it is “just that more men than women are potheads” and scoffs at that explanation as glib.Instead, she believes, “female opposition stems from questions about the impact legalization will have on public health, crime and the social fabric”.

Over at TheMoneyIllusion, Scott Sumner calls this “the mother of all gender gaps” and gets 47 comments. One of the commenters points out a similar gender gap on marijuana legalization in a 2014 survey in Germany (although he did not provide a URL), but still none of the commenters seem to notice the “new” survey they are talking about is 2 years old.

Finally, the discussion goes over to Marginal Revolution and Tyler Cowen amasses 113 comments (at this writing)–many of which are sexist although some are quite funny (“it’s hard enough to get the man to take the trash out when he isn’t stoned”). And again, despite the proliferation of comments, not a single commenter mentions the Quinnipiac survey they are hotly debating is from 2012 and not 2014.

It’s a curious pattern for sure–men trending more liberal and women more conservative. It is at odds with what tends to happen and therefore we think it could be important. But, we can’t just take 2012 data and interpret it through a 2014, post mid-term election lens. We need to see if the gender gap Quinnipiac reported in 2012, remains the same in 2014. Why? Attitudes toward marijuana legalization have been changing very quickly. In November of 2014, we simply cannot know if the “mother of all gender gaps” really does still exist based on survey data from 2012.

When using survey data and hypothesizing as to meaning in the current day, you need to be very sure your survey data is also current.

And it would be wise to go to the original source rather than parroting what others have said and furthering the inaccuracies.


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illegal-immigrants3You are likely familiar with the fact that African-Americans and Hispanics often receive harsher sentences than do White defendants. So where do you think the undocumented immigrant or non-citizen would fall in that lineup? The undocumented receive the harshest sentences and non-citizens (who are in the country legally) come in second. Why? The authors of this paper have a hypothesis: we jury-eligible citizens are simply afraid, and are trying to maintain control of our country.

“…dominant group members feel threatened economically, politically, criminally, or culturally, and will step up efforts to maintain control when minority group populations are increasing.”

You may be surprised to know “more than 30,000 non-US citizens from approximately 150 countries” have been sentenced to time in US prisons by the federal courts each year since 2008. In fact, about half of all the offenders sentenced today in our federal courts are non-US citizens and a “large proportion are from Latin America”–leading some scholars to question if there was a “Hispanic penalty” in sentencing. Researchers examined archival data from US federal courts (using the US Sentencing Commission’s Standardized Research Files) in an attempt to examine if sentencing disparities existed between citizens and non-citizens. The findings are nothing less than stunning.

Compared to US citizens, non-citizen offenders are “over four times more likely to be incarcerated, and this effect is larger than the effects for race, ethnicity, gender, age, education, being convicted at trial, and any of the offense types”. (In other words, being a non-citizen trumps all the other extra-legal variables your client may embody.)

Non-citizens receive “roughly an additional 3.5 months of incarceration” when compared to citizens. “As a point of comparison, Hispanics receive between one and two months of additional prison time compared to whites.” This may sound relatively small, but as the authors point out, “When combining the citizenship penalty across the incarceration and length decisions, the cumulative increase in incarceration is 5,765 total prison years for 2008 alone”. While non-citizens receive higher sentences compared to citizens, the undocumented immigrant is at even higher risk for severe punishment than the legal immigrant.

In response to the questions raised about the “Hispanic penalty”, the researchers show that the “magnitude of the citizenship penalty is over four times stronger than Hispanic ethnicity” when it comes to sentencing. They go on to report that Hispanic ethnicity really explains almost none of the overall citizenship effect. These authors suggest that the harsher punishments observed for Hispanic defendants is more a function of their citizenship status than of their ethnicity.

Every ethnic group lacking US citizenship (including white non-citizens) receive harsher punishment than do defendants who are white citizens. For all races, citizens are punished less harshly than non-citizens.

As concerns about immigration have increased, so has the citizenship penalty. That is, the length of prison sentences assigned to non-citizens has grown substantially as the country has become concerned over the “dramatic influx of non-citizens and undocumented immigrants over the past two decades”. In areas where there are a higher influx of non-citizens, there is a higher “citizenship penalty” in sentencing.

From a litigation advocacy perspective, this article is useful to us in many ways. As the authors say, “citizenship appears to trump race and ethnicity when determining punishments for those who violate US law”.

Reading can help you obtain a sentence for your client that is consistent with those assigned to white defendants rather than incurring a citizenship penalty.

It can be used to educate jurors involved in sentencing decisions and judges making decisions on sentencing if your client is found guilty.

And unlike many statistically heavy articles that illustrate their findings with graphs and charts that are completely incomprehensible–this one makes the point clearly. The figure below (taken from the article itself) illustrates the differences in sentencing you see when you examine only race rather than incorporating citizenship status. This figure, presented and explained piece by piece, communicates clearly what happens with sentencing when the defendant is a non-citizen. Bias comes out in multiple ways we cannot see and, as these researchers clearly illustrate: citizenship trumps race and ethnicity.

citizenship insert


Light, M., Massoglia, M., & King, R. (2014). Citizenship and Punishment: The Salience of National Membership in U.S. Criminal Courts American Sociological Review, 79 (5), 825-847 DOI: 10.1177/0003122414543659


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introverted faceOur mock jurors (and many others as well) tend to believe the eyes are the “window to the soul” and that by simply looking at the eyes of another, they can intuit truthfulness and character. But it can be even easier! Just look at the face and you can actually assess introversion/extroversion, competence/incompetence, dominance/submission, and even trustworthiness/untrustworthiness. In short, if you are trustworthy, you have a more feminine face and tend to evidence positive emotions. If you are not trustworthy, you have a more masculine face and tend to evidence negative emotions. (See illustration above for an example. Doesn’t that woman on the right look more trustworthy than the man on the left?)

Unfortunately, this isn’t just some goofy research that we can make fun of and not take seriously. It is an example of the way we quickly look for shortcuts to assess character and personality traits. We all do it. And further, the consequences for the individual being judged are measurable and can be positive or negative. We know, for example, that attractive people get many benefits for simply being attractive. Apparently, we also have stereotypes about who appears trustworthy and who appears competent. We can take a glance at a face and make many assumptions. The problem is that our assumptions may be very wrong and it is very difficult to change first impressions.

The paper that forms the basis of this blog post was written to summarize the work on “facial morphological traits” and how they are linked to various social outcomes. While the early “science” of physiognomy (a system for identifying personality types and even criminality based on facial characteristics) has long been debunked, we still use many of the same sorts of shortcuts to make assumptions about each other. The research has shown many disturbing (and yet not hard to believe) results.

Politicians who possess particular facial characteristics (e.g., those viewed as reflecting competence and sociability) are more likely to win elections.

CEOs with faces that appear competent are more likely to be hired by large successful companies, even though their performance is no better than less competent-looking fellow applicants.

If you are in the military, you are more likely to be promoted to higher rank if your face appears dominant.

Defendants who have certain facial characteristics (e.g., appearing trustworthy or “baby-faced”) are less likely to be convicted of a crime than their peers who lack those characteristics.

There are multiple other findings that are clear examples of how you look being linked to social outcomes. The authors comment that there is causal evidence (not just correlational) showing facial appearance as influential in voting, economic exchanges, and legal judgments. We leap from facial appearance to character judgments of trustworthiness, competence, introversion, and dominance.

From a litigation advocacy perspective, this is obviously problematic if you have a deserving client who is not fortunate enough to have been born with the most acceptable facial characteristics. However, an intriguing fact is embedded in the article.

One study found that voters who have limited knowledge are more likely to vote for politicians with the most competent-looking faces. More knowledgeable voters showed no such tendency.

This bodes well for us. Educating jurors and finding likable things to show them about the client should mitigate first impressions. We often talk about the importance of using universal values in witness preparation and case narrative. The power of our stereotypes as we judge each other is shocking and illustrated clearly in the examples of trustworthy, extroverted, competent and dominant faces in the article itself. We need to pay attention to what we can do to reduce the biasing impact of facial appearance. The authors encourage awareness of just how challenging this goal will be:

“This is a challenging task because people are naturally inclined to draw inferences from faces to an extent that they may find it difficult to inhibit these tendencies. On the positive side, the evidence suggests that people sometimes rely on facial appearances less when they are armed with more relevant and valid types of information. Thus, in some contexts, educating people might be sufficient to reduce facial stereotyping. In other contexts, however, more research will be necessary to identify the best ways to mitigate the biasing influence of facial appearance. For instance, it still remains to be determined how justice can be truly blind – that is, how judges and juries can disentangle case-relevant facial information (e.g., expressions of remorse) from information that should be irrelevant to a case (e.g., facial morphological features perceived as criminal-looking).”

Olivola, C., Funk, F., & Todorov, A. (2014). Social attributions from faces bias human choices Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 18 (11), 566-570 DOI: 10.1016/j.tics.2014.09.007

Image taken from article referenced above.

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Changing American Attitudes: Gay/Lesbian Issues

Wednesday, October 22, 2014
posted by Douglas Keene

FL21 Lesbian pride FlagRecently, Governor Jerry Brown of California signed AB2501 banning the “gay panic” defense in California. The story in the Visalia Times-Delta says, Californians cannot claim in court that they were

“acting from panic or passion when they killed someone who they either knew or found out was gay or transgender.  Now they will face the full charges for their crime, just as if they had killed a heterosexual person.  No more “momentary insanity” claims because someone of the same gender (or transgender) made a pass (or you thought they made a pass) at you”.

And it isn’t just California. Attitudes toward gay/lesbian people are changing across America. We see those shifts in surveys by secular polling groups routinely. But when we see them in surveys hosted by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), we need to take notice. In June of 2014, PRRI posted a fact sheet on gay and lesbian issues based on recent survey results. In brief, here is what they had to say:

Same-sex marriage:

A majority of Americans favor legal same-sex marriage (53%) while just 41% oppose.

Democrats support legal same-sex marriage (64%) as do Independents (57%), but only a minority of Republicans have support for legal same-sex marriage (34%).

Young adults (aged 18 to 29) support legal same-sex marriage (69%) while senior citizens mostly do not (56% oppose).

Same-sex marriage and religion:

51% of Americans say same-sex marriage is against their religious beliefs, but 45% disagree.

Americans tend to perceive three religious groups as unfriendly toward lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered (LGBT) people: the Catholic Church (58%), the Mormon Church (53%), and evangelical Christian Churches (51%).

Discrimination against LGBT people in American society and workplace protections:

More than 2/3 of Americans (68%) think gay and lesbian people face a lot of discrimination in the US.

72% favor laws that would protect gay and lesbian people from job discrimination. 23% oppose these laws. 75% of Americans think Congress should pass laws to protect transgender people from job discrimination, while 21% disagree.

Morality-Acceptance Gap on Gay and Lesbian Relationships:

51% of Americans say (despite the majority support for same-sex marriage) that sex between adults of the same gender is morally wrong.

Parenting and Adoption by Gay and Lesbian Couples:

58% of Americans favor allowing gay and lesbian people to adopt children, and 37% are  opposed.

Nature vs. Nurture Debate About Sexual Orientation:

44% of Americans think being gay and/or lesbian is “something a person is born with” while 36% think it is “due to factors such as upbringing or environment”. 12% think it is some combination of the two (i.e., nature + nurture).

There is more in this fact sheet that we have not covered here. You can find information on the breakdown of attitudes by religious affiliation, attitudes about the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and Federalism, a breakdown of attitudes by political affiliation, and attitudes on ordination of gay and lesbian people. Overall, it’s a good primer on where attitudes are now in the United States about wide-ranging issues related to gay lesbian people.

Fact Sheet: Gay and Lesbian Issues. 2013. Public Religion Research Institute.


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