Skip to content
Who's in the Video
Laurence Steinberg is the Distinguished University Professor of Psychology at Temple University. An internationally renowned expert on psychological development during adolescence, he is the author of more than 250 articles[…]

A psychologist explains a study into how racial associations affect expectations of guilt.

Question: Can you explain your study into racial associations?

Laurence Steinberg: Our group did a really interesting study of this. We brought people into the lab, and in this experiment one sample were police officers and one sample were probation officers. We found the same thing in each sample. So we bring them into the lab and we say, we're going to ask you to read through this hypothetical discussion of a crime. And the person is going to be given a couple of paragraph to read that describe a crime but that don't have any information about the perpetrator's race. In each case it's a juvenile. Now, we tell you that before you read this we want you to do an exercise to kind of clear your mind. And we ask you to look at a computer and to tell us whether a point of light that you're going to see flashing is on the right side or the left side of the screen.

Now, in reality it's not a point of light; it's a word. But it's flashed so quickly that you can't process it; it's all subliminal. Half the people in the study get a list of words that we associate with African-Americans, things like Oprah or reggae. So not bad things, but things that we tend to associate with being black. Half the sample gets a list of words that has no racial association but that are matched for their word length. And then people are given these crimes to read, and they're asked, how guilty is the person? How much punishment does the person deserve? How likely is the person to reoffend? How adult-like is this offender? And in both samples, regardless of the race of the person in the experiment, if you got primed to think of African-Americans, you rated the person, the criminal, as guiltier, more deserving of punishment, more likely to reoffend, more adult-like. And this happened, as I said, regardless of the race of the person in the experiment. So black police officers were just as likely to do this as white police officers, black probation officers just as likely as white probation officers. But it gets to something that's important about understanding disproportionate minority involvement in the system, which is that we have unconscious biases that affect the decisions that we make.

Question: Why do you feel there is a disproportionate number of minority adolescents in prison in America?

Laurence Steinberg: Well, racial disproportionality in the justice system is seen at virtually every level that you look at. So it's seen in terms of who gets arrested, it's seen in terms of how people are charged, it's seen in terms of who gets detained, it's seen in terms of who gets incarcerate, and it's seen in terms of who gets transferred. At all of those levels of involvement in the system, you see more black and Latino kids than you do white kids, controlling for their criminal behavior. There isn't one thing that causes this to happen. It's, I think, probably the sum of many smaller things but then when added up have a large effect. So we know that there is racial profiling going on in terms of how law authorities work. We know that people have unconscious biases against kids of color that might lead them to see them as more dangerous when they may not be. You tend to see disproportionality the most at less serious crimes. So, just in a concrete way, if you're talking about somebody who's murdered somebody, it really doesn't matter, for the most part, whether that criminal is black or white; they're going to be punished for murder. But if you're talking about somebody who's arrested for drug dealing, you know, there's a lot of subjectivity that goes on in how the charge is made and in what the outcome of the charge is.

Question: So how do we go about changing this in a systemic way?

Laurence Steinberg: It's been done in a couple of places and been effective. So what you can do is, you can give the decision-makers objective criteria by which to decide how to punish or sanction somebody. And those objective criteria could include things like the grades somebody was getting in school, the person's prior record, the person's behavior while in the detention facility, how the person scored on some test of personality or aggression or whatever. But when those kinds of objective scoring systems are implemented that then tell you, well, given this score, we want to use this sanction, you can eliminate the racial differences in the way kids are treated.