Representation and Mental Taxation

Your brain tends to take what you see at face value – challenge it.


A study titled “Racial Disparities in Incarceration Increase Acceptance of Punitive Policies” was published in Psychological Science earlier this week. I was intrigued, not only because one of the authors was my undergraduate thesis advisor and I am familiar with and admire her work but because the study dealt with the representation of Black people in prison and how the perception of these figures can influence important policy decisions.

eberhardt and hetey

Dr. Eberhardt (left) and Dr. Hetey (right)

According to the most recent published census data, 12% of America’s population identifies as Black. However, Black people are grossly over-represented in prisons, making up nearly 40% of the incarcerated population. The slightly alarming conclusion of Hetey and Eberhardt’s research is that people’s opinions about punitive crime policy are easily manipulated by how this disparity is presented, regardless of how harsh they think crime policies are. As someone who has worked in social science laboratories and under Dr. Eberhardt, the fact that people can be gently manipulated in one direction or another is not groundbreaking. What is groundbreaking about this study is that when the incarcerated population was represented as “more Black,” people reported being more afraid of crime and showed more support for harsh punitive measures such as California’s three-strikes law and the New York Police Department’s stop-and-frisk policy.

In one of the two experiments, a white female researcher showed white voters in San Franscisco one of two videos containing inmate mug shots and then provided them with the opportunity to sign a petition to ease the severity of the three-strikes law. In one of the videos, 25% of the mug shots were of Black men; in the other, this percentage rose to 45%. Over half of the participants who saw fewer black men signed the petition, while only 27% of the people who saw more black faces agreed to sign.

In the second experiment, white New York residents were presented with an article that either showed the national incarceration rate of Blacks (40%) or the New York City rate (60%). They were then given the opportunity to sign a petition to end the stop-and-frisk policy. 33% of those who saw that national statistic signed the petition, while only 12% of participants who saw the NY statistic were willing to sign.

black prisonThis article neatly summed up the experiment and results:

“The question seems to be which instinct wins out: the belief that our prison system isn’t fair, or the assumption that a prisoner must be a criminal. According to the study, when whites are primed to think of prisoners as black, it’s the latter that wins out.”

Activists and advocates aiming to reduce the incarceration discrepancy often use evidence of racial disparities as a foundation for their argument. Numerical data is powerful – people believe in numbers and these are particularly telling; from an activist’s perspective, they clearly show that there are problems with American policy, laws, and social constructions. However, in an interview with the Stanford Report, Hetey explained that, “…ironically, exposure to extreme racial disparities may make the public less, and not more, responsive to attempts to lessen the severity of policies that help maintain these disparities.” So even the people fighting the good fight may unknowingly be contributing to the vicious cycle.

lazyThere are a myriad of reasons that explain these disparities, but it goes without saying that “Black people are inherently more violent/prone to engaging in criminal behavior” is decidedly not one of them. And yet in the context of this research, this seems to be exactly what a lot of people believe. Why? Setting admitted racists aside for a moment, this is mostly because the brain is lazy. The brain evolved to make quick decisions – safe or dangerous, in-group or out-group – and tends to think of issues in, well, black and white. You’re either with us or against us, right?

Similarly, if you are exposed to arguments that encourage certain conclusions, your brain will tend to agree with said conclusions because the evidence is there and it would require extra cognitive effort to confirm or challenge it. July 14th’s Change article, The Why Game, used the example of a man being rude and unpleasant on the bus. Your brain automatically assumes that it is because he is a rude and unpleasant person – the evidence is there, the conclusion natural. However, as outlined in the article’s discussion, this might not be the case. Correspondingly (ok, the parallel is not perfect but stick with me), when presented with the numbers of incarcerated Black people in America and especially without meaningful context, Hetey and Eberhardt’s research supports the conclusion that the brain can easily be led to conclude that this is because Black people are more likely to be criminals. Our brains move like water – they choose the intellectual path of least resistance unless otherwise directed, even if this makes us slightly uncomfortable.

lucyTo me, this is upsetting enough within the confines of a carefully controlled experiment. But the repercussions go far beyond the videos and articles created for the study, and even beyond the question of incarceration statistics. If we zoom out and examine representation on a larger scale, looking at the “videos” created and shown to the American public (i.e. Hollywood), the vicious cycle continues to be reinforced. The most dramatic recent examples that come to mind are Lucy, Luc Besson’s recent production in which the pinnacle of human evolution is represented by a blonde white woman, and the new Ridley Scott movie Exodus: Gods and Men, in which ancient Egypt is ruled and populated by white people. I saw the trailer and was a bit puzzled by the overwhelmingly white cast. Surely they cast some Black/African actors? I went to IMDB to find out, and the cast list looks like something Dr. Eberhardt could have put together for her research. White actors cast in leading/heroic roles, Black actors cast as thieves, villains, and “lower class” citizens. And this for a movie set in Africa. I certainly wasn’t the only one to be upset by these two films and their questionable casting – I came across this article, which opens with “Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods And Kings movie is racist as shit” and an article about Lucy that begins “I’m tired of seeing white people on the silver screen.”


exodus cast

The concept of Hollywood whitewashing or “racebending” isn’t new; people have been talking about and studying it for years. It is one thing to only show white faces as heroes and protagonists, but it is entirely another to then show primarily black faces as criminals and servants. The rapid-fire combination of Lucy’s release, the trailer for Exodus: Gods and Men and the publication of Hetey and Eberhardt’s research was too coincidental not to ignore.

I ask you to please override your brain’s simplistic conclusions, not only in daily situations in which you may have to deal with unpleasant people but also when considering current events, policy, and pop culture. Correlation does not equal causation, and challenging ubiquitous representations of minorities is mentally taxing. But if we want to live in a society that isn’t over six times as likely to incarcerate a Black man than a White man, a society that doesn’t assume that white people are universal stand-ins for the human race, a society that respects history and our modern portrayals of it…we need to be critical consumers. We need to make the effort to open our eyes, challenge widespread inaccurate representations of race and ethnicity, and to stand up and speak out. Pay attention. Don’t allow yourself to be manipulated.

intelligencechallenge accepted

Author: Kai Larson

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