Stereotypes of criminality in the U.S. track ecology, not race – part of EHB Special Issue on evolution, justice and the law

– by Keelah Williams

In the United States, Americans stereotype Black individuals as being more likely to commit certain types of crime than White individuals. But is this really about race alone? Or might people sometimes use race to infer the kinds of environments others might inhabit and the behavioral predispositions those environments might incentivize?

In a paper recently published in Evolution and Human Behavior, I argue that beliefs about who is (or is not) likely to commit particular crimes are actually driven by inferences about the kinds of environments (“ecologies”) people come from. People from resource-poor and unpredictable ecologies are stereotyped as engaging in more criminal behavior than people from resource-rich and predictable ecologies. And because the legacy of racism means that race and ecology are intertwined in the U.S., American perceivers use race as a proxy for ecology: They tend to infer that Black people are more likely to dwell in “desperate” ecologies, and White people are more likely to dwell in “hopeful” ecologies.

In a series of three studies, I show that—in the absence of information about the ecology of the target individual—American perceivers stereotype Black targets as more likely to commit crimes such as drug possession, resisting arrest, and vehicle theft than are White targets. But when perceivers are provided with both race and ecology information about the targets, perceivers’ stereotypes track ecology but not race: White and Black targets from resource-poor and unpredictable environments are stereotyped as equally likely to commit those crimes. And, White and Black targets from resource-rich and predictable environments are stereotyped as equally unlikely to commit those crimes. These findings suggest that beliefs about others’ criminal propensities may not be driven solely by race per se but may instead reflect inferences about the behavioral disposition of people who come from hopeful or desperate ecologies.

These findings have practical implications for reducing racial bias in the criminal justice system. Previous work suggests that Black criminal offenders receive harsher punishments for the same crimes because they are seen as more dangerous and likely to reoffend than White criminal offenders. But if people’s beliefs about whether someone is predisposed to commit different crimes are driven by ecology rather than race, this suggests that race differences in legal outcomes could be reduced to the extent that targets are described as hailing from similar ecologies. (The appropriateness of using ecology information when making legal decisions is a separate question, however—especially because many cues to ecology may be outside of the person’s control.)

This paper was published as part of a Special Issue on Evolution, Justice, and the Law that I edited with Debra Lieberman. Evolutionary social science and the law are natural complements: The former seeks to understand behavior while the latter seeks to regulate behavior. As the articles in the Special Issue demonstrate, an evolutionary approach has immense value in the legal sphere because it has explanatory power, generates novel predictions for legally relevant behavior, and provides insights that inform normative debates in the law.

The articles in the Special Issue are grouped into five broad themes. The first theme—including papers by Carlton Patrick, Daniel Sznycer, Peter DeScioli, and Aaron Sell—considers the origins of moral judgments. Is there an objective set of moral principles independent of law? How do intuitions about justice arise? And should such universal intuitions guide lawmaking?

The second theme—including papers by Sarah Brosnan, Owen Jones, and Jeffrey Stake—addresses the topics of ownership and fairness. How do adaptations generate decisions to retain or relinquish material goods? What can the non-human primate literature tell us about the modern human sense of fairness and justice?

The third theme—including papers by Cass Sunstein and Keelah Williams—explores contextual factors that influence legal judgments. How does the prevalence of societal problems affect our categorization of what is problematic in the first place? And, as the beginning of this blog addresses, what best explains people’s propensity to infer criminality—ecology or race?

The fourth theme—including papers by Michael Guttentag and Douglas Yarn—examines the extent to which law influences cooperative behavior. How are laws regarding resource distribution influenced by our evolved dispositions? When might extralegal channels of dispute resolution (e.g., dueling) promote cooperative relationships more than adjudication?

Finally, the fifth theme—including papers by David Buss, Kingsley Browne, and Martin Daly—touches on matters of sex and death. How do evolved sex differences affect perceptions of what is legally objectionable and the existence of disparities in the workplace? What role does inequality play in homicide rates? How can an evolutionary perspective help solve societal problems on a macro scale?

Altogether, the Special Issue offers a variety of papers that explore how our evolved psychology generates intuitions, preferences, and behaviors in the legal sphere. Debra and I hope you enjoy this Special Issue representing a burgeoning research program at the intersection of evolutionary science and law.

Read the original article here: Williams, K. (2023). Stereotypes of criminality in the U.S. track ecology, not race. Evolution & Human Behavior, 44(3), 255-263.

This is part of a special issue of Evolution & Human Behavior on Evolution, Justice & Law, edited by Keelah Williams & Debra Lieberman