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Imprisoned Imperceptions: Inaccuracy in Incarceration Demographic Stereotypes
Unformatted Document Text:  Incarceration Beliefs For nearly a century, stereotypes have been condemned as the inaccurate, unjustified, irrational cognitive culprits in prejudice and discrimination (e.g., Allport, 1954; Aronson, 1999; Campbell, 1967; Fiske & Neuberg, 1990; Katz & Braly, 1933; La Piere, 1936). More recently, however, empirical research that has actually assessed the accuracy of stereotypes typically finds that people’s beliefs about groups are quite accurate (e.g., McCauley & Stitt, 1978; Ryan, 1996). Indeed, the average level of accuracy of stereotypes found in empirical studies is one of the largest empirical effects in all of social psychology (Jussim et al, 2009). The results of the present study fall between these two extremes and indicate a mix of accuracy and inaccuracy in peoples’ stereotypes about the demographics of the incarcerated population. For both consensual and individual stereotypes, when considered as discrepancies from perfection, people’s beliefs were primarily near-misses. They were in the vicinity of the real proportions, but they were not particularly close to hitting the numbers on the head. When correlational accuracy was considered, consensual stereotypes were quite accurate, whereas the individual stereotype correlations were more modest (though still generally in the range of moderately accurate by our classification system – i.e., even these lower correlations corresponded to a moderate effect size in Cohen’s (1988) system). There was, however, one particularly striking evidence of inaccuracy – people’s beliefs about the overall levels of incarceration were staggeringly, stunningly high – estimating that over one in five Americans were in jail. This pattern was not affected by one’s level of expertise in criminal justice, as criminal justice majors fared no better than lay respondents, and in fact in some cases were less accurate than their non-expert counterparts. What explains this staggering overestimate of incarceration rates? Perhaps the prevalence of media images that focus on the criminal justice system in general (e.g., NBC’s Law & Order) and incarceration in particular (e.g., HBO’s Oz) both create and reinforce popular misconceptions about U.S. incarceration. Such images, as well as an increasing 23

Authors: Ragusa, Laura.
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Incarceration Beliefs
For nearly a century, stereotypes have been condemned as the inaccurate, unjustified, 
irrational cognitive culprits in prejudice and discrimination (e.g., Allport, 1954; Aronson, 1999; 
Campbell, 1967; Fiske & Neuberg, 1990; Katz & Braly, 1933; La Piere, 1936).  More recently, 
however, empirical research that has actually assessed the accuracy of stereotypes typically finds that 
people’s beliefs about groups are quite accurate (e.g., McCauley & Stitt, 1978; Ryan, 1996).  Indeed, 
the average level of accuracy of stereotypes found in empirical studies is one of the largest empirical 
effects in all of social psychology (Jussim et al, 2009).  
The results of the present study fall between these two extremes and indicate a mix of 
accuracy and inaccuracy in peoples’ stereotypes about the demographics of the incarcerated 
population.  For both consensual and individual stereotypes, when considered as discrepancies from 
perfection, people’s beliefs were primarily near-misses.  They were in the vicinity of the real 
proportions, but they were not particularly close to hitting the numbers on the head.  When 
correlational accuracy was considered, consensual stereotypes were quite accurate, whereas the 
individual stereotype correlations were more modest (though still generally in the range of 
moderately accurate by our classification system – i.e., even these lower correlations corresponded to 
a moderate effect size in Cohen’s (1988) system).
There was, however, one particularly striking evidence of inaccuracy – people’s beliefs about 
the overall levels of incarceration were staggeringly, stunningly high – estimating that over one in 
five Americans were in jail.  This pattern was not affected by one’s level of expertise in criminal 
justice, as criminal justice majors fared no better than lay respondents, and in fact in some cases were 
less accurate than their non-expert counterparts. What explains this staggering overestimate of 
incarceration rates?  Perhaps the prevalence of media images that focus on the criminal justice system 
in general (e.g., NBC’s Law & Order) and incarceration in particular (e.g., HBO’s Oz) both create 
and reinforce popular misconceptions about U.S. incarceration. Such images, as well as an increasing 

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