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Imprisoned Imperceptions: Inaccuracy in Incarceration Demographic Stereotypes
Unformatted Document Text:  Incarceration Beliefs awareness of the high U.S. incarceration rates comparative to other nations, may lead to exaggerations of prison population estimates. Alternatively, this, too, might partially reflect contraction bias or subjective regression to the mean. It seems unlikely, however, that it exclusively reflects contraction bias. Exclusive occurrence of contraction bias would mean that the greatest inaccuracy would occur when the actual percentages were most extreme (closest to 100% or 0%). This did not happen. Instead, our results showed that the most inaccurate beliefs occurred for estimations of the proportion of the incarcerated that has a high school degree – the demographic group for whom the criterion was least extreme (closest to 50%, see Table 4). It is left to future research, therefore, to identify the specific sources of the types of extreme overestimates of incarceration that we found. Limitations and Future Directions Several limitations qualify the insights this research has provided into stereotype (in)accuracy in general and beliefs about incarceration in particular. First, we collected some of our data from college students, who may provide estimates that deviate from samples more representative of the U.S. population. Second, our sampling from the train station was a haphazard sample, not a random sample representative of the U.S. population. Thus, whether these results generalize to groups and people other than those we studied is unclear. Future research should examine these perceptions from a more representative sample of U.S. citizens. One important potential influence on beliefs about incarceration is the role of media portrayals of incarceration. This potential influence was not examined in the present study. Perhaps exposure to popular media that sensationalize prisons may lead individuals to exaggerate incarceration estimates, while exposure to balanced news media may lead to more accurate incarceration estimates. Future investigations should test people’s exposure to a variety of media portrayals of U.S. prisons. 24

Authors: Ragusa, Laura.
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Incarceration Beliefs
awareness of the high U.S. incarceration rates comparative to other nations, may lead to 
exaggerations of prison population estimates. 
Alternatively, this, too, might partially reflect contraction bias or subjective regression to the 
mean.  It seems unlikely, however, that it exclusively reflects contraction bias.  Exclusive occurrence 
of contraction bias would mean that the greatest inaccuracy would occur when the actual percentages 
were most extreme (closest to 100% or 0%).  This did not happen.  Instead, our results showed that 
the most inaccurate beliefs occurred for estimations of the proportion of the incarcerated that has a 
high school degree – the demographic group for whom the criterion was least extreme (closest to 
50%, see Table 4).  It is left to future research, therefore, to identify the specific sources of the types 
of extreme overestimates of incarceration that we found.
Limitations and Future Directions
Several limitations qualify the insights this research has provided into stereotype (in)accuracy 
in general and beliefs about incarceration in particular. First, we collected some of our data from 
college students, who may provide estimates that deviate from samples more representative of the 
U.S. population. Second, our sampling from the train station was a haphazard sample, not a random 
sample representative of the U.S. population.  Thus, whether these results generalize to groups and 
people other than those we studied is unclear.  Future research should examine these perceptions 
from a more representative sample of U.S. citizens. 
One important potential influence on beliefs about incarceration is the role of media 
portrayals of incarceration. This potential influence was not examined in the present study. Perhaps 
exposure to popular media that sensationalize prisons may lead individuals to exaggerate 
incarceration estimates, while exposure to balanced news media may lead to more accurate 
incarceration estimates. Future investigations should test people’s exposure to a variety of media 
portrayals of U.S. prisons. 
24


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