Stereotype Threat in Criminal Investigations

Najdowski, C. J. (2011). Stereotype threat in criminal investigations: Why innocent Black suspects are at risk for confessing falsely. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 17(4), 562-591.

Research on racial disparities in law enforcement indicates that African Americans are disproportionately targeted as suspects, interrogated, and wrongfully convicted. Evidence also suggests that people of color are more likely than Whites to have falsely confessed to crimes. Najdowski (2011) reviewed literature related to the potential role of stereotype threat in these false confessions. In stereotype threat situations, awareness of the ways in which one is stereotyped creates anxiety about confirming that stereotype, and this anxiety interferes with performance, ironically increasing the likelihood of acting in ways that confirm the stereotype. Proposed mechanisms for this effect include increased physiological arousal, cognitive load, and self-regulatory behaviors. The stereotype in question in this study portrays Black people as prone to criminal behavior. The author reviewed studies suggesting that police are more likely to misclassify Black suspects than White suspects as guilty. Once this occurs, confirmation bias may lead police to seek information that validates their presumption of guilt, such as focusing on defensive behavior that stems from stereotype threat. The literature also indicated that once a suspect is classified as guilty, police are more likely to use coercive methods, and that the desire to escape from these coercive methods may lead to false confessions. Najdowski proposed and outlined empirical studies that could investigate the extent to which stereotype threat contributes to the disproportionate number of false confessions among Black suspects. Once better understood, measures can be taken to minimize stereotype threat as a risk factor for false confessions.

Making Connections

Confirmation bias
Stereotype threat

Media Supplement

Legal scholar Michelle Alexander discusses her book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness in this NPR podcast. She proposes that many of the gains of the civil rights movement have been undermined by the mass incarceration of Black Americans in the war on drugs. [39 min 19 sec]

Read an interview with Claude Steele about his research on stereotype threat and his thoughts about how stereotype threat may affect SAT scores.