The Situation of ‘Common Sense’
Posted by Jerry Kang on July 6, 2010
On April 15, I had the pleasure of participating in a Collaborative training symposium on Implicit Bias and Eyewitness Identification, conducted for Connecticut prosecutors and public defenders. I spoke on the topic of implicit bias, a core research interest. It was an interesting conversation, and the engagement was intelligent, thoughtful, and public minded.
Afterwards, Chris Nolan, a journalist for the Connecticut Law Tribune, interviewed me over the phone for a long while, and I tried to give him more information about the relevant science and policy implications. He wrote up an article, which spawned a strident response by Karen Lee Torre.
She was pretty darn angry. She called me a “known left-winger,” “liberal political operative,” “an active Obama booster,” shoveling “crock,” “junk social science,” with “comical empirics.” I assume that after looking at my vita, she concluded that I “never held a real job,” and worse predictably clerked for the “9th Circuit.” She fantasized about having New Haven firefighters “tear [my] critical race theory to shreds and eat [me] for lunch.”
I thought this was just another example of tendentious blogosphere huffing. But then I realized the Ms. Torre is an attorney and that this was printed in the Connecticut Law Tribune. And I let out a heavy sigh. When really smart people with loads of education turn immediately into name-calling, I can’t but help get pessimistic about the possibility of open-minded, good faith talk about how to make our country a better place, more consistent in practice with its noble ideals.
But I guess I’m at heart an optimist, so I thought this might be converted to a learning moment.
There’s loads of scholarly information on implicit bias, the subject I lectured about. Accessible accounts as well as demonstrations can be found at Project Implicit (run by Harvard, U. of Washington, and Virginia). There’s far more many papers than you’d want to read on my own research site. But if you’re really curious about the “junk” I’m supposedly peddling, take a look at a primer I wrote for judges in conjunction with the National Center for State Courts. Decide for yourself whether it sounds nuts.
Nolan Article on “Checking Biases”
Chris Nolan’s article (Checking Biases at the Courtroom Door, June 7, 2010, not online) — which sparked the outraged response from Karen Lee Torre — relayed various things I communicated to him. It’s mostly right, but there’s always a danger of meaning getting lost in translation. As an academic talking with the popular media, this is an unavoidable risk. Let me highlight a few claims, provide references to the actual studies, and make clarifications and corrections along the way. Again, the goal here is to be as transparent as possible.
Nolan described the findings of shooter bias. It turns out that when we play a video game, where the rule is to hit one key “shoot” if we see a person holding a gun, and another key “holster” if we see a harmless object (e.g. phone or wallet), most of us show a bias in how we shoot depending on whether the person holding the object is Black or White.
*See Joshua Correll et al., The police officer’s dilemma: Using ethnicity to disambiguate potentially threatening individuals, 83 J. PERSON. & SOC. PSYCHOL. 1314 (2002). See also Anthony G. Greenwald et al. Targets of discrimination: Effects of race on responses to weapons holders, 39 J. EXPERIMENTAL SOC. PSYCHOL. 399 (finding similar results).
Nolan described this as having been demonstrated with police officers. As a clarification, most of these studies have been done with non police officers, such as students and lay folks recruited to participate in psychology experiments. Some work has been done with actual officers. There, researchers have found mixed results–sometimes police officers show the same bias; sometimes less so.
*See E. Ashby Plant & B. Michelle Peruche, 16 PSYCHOLOGICAL SCIENCE 180, 181 (2005). In another paper, police officers showed a similar tendency to be faster to respond to armed Blacks (compared to armed Whites) and unarmed Whites (compared to unarmed Blacks), but did not exhibit racial bias on the arguably more important criterion of accuracy: unarmed Blacks were not more likely to be “shot” than unarmed Whites. See Joshua Correll et al. Across the thin blue line: Police officers and racial bias in the decision to shoot., 92 J. PERSONALITY & SOC. PSYCHOL. 1006, 1010-1013, 1016-1017 (2007) (describing results from two studies).
Greater Punishment for those with Afro-Centric Facial Features
Nolan also reported some work that showed differential sentencing. Although there are a few papers relevant, I was referring to this particular paper:
Irene V. Blair et al., The Influence of Afrocentric Facial Features in Criminal Sentencing, J. PSYCHOL. SCI. 674, 677 (2004) (finding no disparate sentencing on the basis of race in Florida data set, but finding that within each racial category, White or Black, those individuals with more Afrocentric facial features received harsher sentences).
Jennifer Eberhardt has also produced relevant work here, which found that among African American defendants convicted of murdering White victims, death sentences were given to 58% of those physically rated as more stereotypically Black. For those who looked less “Black”, the rate was only 24%.
See Jennifer L. Eberhardt et al., Looking Deathworthy:Perceived Stereotypicality of Black Defendants Predicts Capital-Sentencing Outcomes, 17 Psychol. Sci. 383 (2006).
Liberals and their Biases
Finally, Nolan pointed out that not only prosecutors but also public defenders have implicit biases. Indeed, I regularly say “no one is immune.” He added that “liberals tend to have fewer biases,” which is probably not exactly what I would have emphasized. The more important point is that no one seems to be free from implicit biases–they are just the product of living in the world that exists. One way to think about it is breathing in pollution, which leaves particulate matter in our lungs. It’s not entirely novel or surprising that you might have some nasty stuff inside. Capital punishment lawyers have implicit biases. Judges have implicit biases. Asian students at Yale showed implicit stereotypes about Asians, and so on. Now, this doesn’t mean that there’s no differences among individuals or groups. For instance, we tend to have better implicit attitudes about the groups we belong to. Now, back to Nolan’s point.
In the most exhaustive statistical analysis of the implicit bias data collected at Project Implicit, Brian Nosek and colleagues cranked out all kinds of correlations. Here’s a telling set of findings. One implicit association test measured the implicit attitude (positive or negative) that participants showed to Arab-Muslims. Those who self-described as strong liberals showed a bias of 0.34 (these are Cohen d units, but that doesn’t concern us now). By contrast, those who described themselves as strong conservatives showed a bias of 1.13 (higher means more bias). We see similar findings regarding, say, implicit attitudes toward African Americans (strong liberals at 0.08; strong conservatives at 0.74).
See Brian A. Nosek et al., Pervasiveness and Correlates of Implicit Attitudes and Stereotypes, 18 EURO. REV. SOCIAL PSYCH. 1 (2007) (Table 6).
There are two points worth making. First, strong liberals are probably committed to having zero biases not only against Blacks but also against Arab-Muslims. They want to be colorblind. Yet they still registered a non-trivial attitudinal difference. See, no one is immune.
Second, a part of me would like it if there were no such liberal versus conservative differences, if implicit biases were somehow randomly distributed regardless of self-described political leanings. That would make the reform project easier since there would be less defensiveness on all sides. But here’s the thing with science. You just can’t make the data come out anyway you want. You can’t just invoke “common sense” and simply declare the state of the world. We don’t do that with evidence-based medicine. Why should we do that with social policy?
Ms. Torre’s Common Sense
It’s well within Karen Lee Torre’s First Amendment rights to shout out her opinion. She doesn’t quite get to defamation, and no doubt I’ve become a limited public figure in this context. But the great thing about the Internet is that counter-speech is relatively cheap. And instead of getting into a fight with people being shredded into bits and eaten for lunch, I’m hoping for a genuine discussion–where facts matter. There are skeptical scientists and lawyers who engage more on the merits. That’s good, that’s what we should be doing. And I don’t presume to have all the answers. But ad hominem dismissals are fundamentally unhelpful.
In her closing, Ms. Torre writes:
“I know better than to judge any book by its cover. But I’ve also lived long enough and seen enough to know that if somebody, black or white, is walking toward me in a darkened parking lot, and he’s got pants below his butt and a cap on sideways, chances are he’s not fresh back from Oxford.
That’s my critical common sense theory. And it, in fact, saved me from an attempted mugging just last year.”
I’m glad that Ms. Torre avoided violence. But, there’s too much social science for me to assume that race did not make any difference–that it was all about baggy pants. A Black person is viewed as more threatening, less smiling, more aggressive than a White person even holding all other attributes constant — including attractiveness, clothing, etc. But somehow Ms. Torre trusts her “common sense” and needs no data, no science, no research. She seems not to recognize what Gordon Allport, a renowned 20th century psychologist, observed back in 1958:
“Prejudice is not ‘the invention of liberal intellectuals.’ It is simply an aspect of mental life that can be studied as objectively as any other.”
No doubt Allport could be attacked as a “Harvard” hack. But what about this following quote:
“Common sense is sometimes another word for prejudice . . . .”
That comes from Judge Richard Posner….
See American Amusement Machine Association v. Kendrick (7th Cir. 2001).
…. although he has been sounding a little lefty re financial regulation recently.
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For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Why Race May Influence Us Even When We “Know” It Doesn’t,” “Perceptions of Racial Divide,” “Black History is Now,” “Jennifer Eberhardt’s “Policing Racial Bias” – Video,” “The Situation of Litigators,” “Tierney’s Skepticism at the New York Times,” “Measuring Implicit Attitudes,” “What Are the Legal Implications of Implicit Biases?,” “Confronting the Backlash against Implicit Bias,” “Legal Academic Backlash – Abstract,” “Naïve Cynicism in Election 2008: Dispositionism v. Situationism?,” “Implicit Bias and Strawmen,”and “The Situation of Situation in Employment Discrimination Law – Abstract.”