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Imprisoned Imperceptions: Inaccuracy in Incarceration Demographic Stereotypes
Unformatted Document Text:  Incarceration Beliefs 2009, for a review) shows that shared (consensual) stereotypes are generally moderately to highly accurate. Such results should begin to moderate claims about stereotypes as “shared cultural myths.” The shared part of stereotypes seems to be the most accurate part. Our results also raise possibilities regarding why people may have more accurate stereotypes about some groups than about others. Specifically, people were much more accurate in their perceptions of the demographics of the US population than of the incarcerated. These differences may be related to frequency of contact with group members or media portrayals of these group members, two issues with obvious relevance to incarcerated individuals. Certainly, most individuals have infrequent contact with the incarcerated; however, portrayals of these individuals pervade media and news reports. This confluence may make it more likely that inaccurate beliefs may arise about incarcerated individuals. Given that people have quite inaccurate perceptions of highly salient features of the prison population, it is reasonable to hypothesize that perceptions of the criminality of those who are incarcerated may also be inaccurate. Whether that is actually the case, however, is a question that must be left for future research. Conclusion This research empirically demonstrates several important points about social stereotypes in general, and beliefs about incarceration in particular. First, we confess to having been quite surprised at the striking overestimate of the overall levels of incarceration, and, especially, that this pattern was not remotely reduced among our sample of criminal justice students. Although we offered some speculations for this result, it clearly warrants further research, especially among anyone concerned about the quality of the education being received by students in criminal justice programs. Second, the pattern of people’s errors was quite clear, providing strong support for system justification theory. Stereotypes regarding the demographics of incarceration do indeed seem to rationalize and justify the higher status positions of Whites and men in particular. Lastly, stereotypes regarding the 26

Authors: Ragusa, Laura.
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Incarceration Beliefs
2009, for a review) shows that shared (consensual) stereotypes are generally moderately to highly 
accurate.  Such results should begin to moderate claims about stereotypes as “shared cultural myths.” 
The shared part of stereotypes seems to be the most accurate part.  
Our results also raise possibilities regarding why people may have more accurate stereotypes 
about some groups than about others.  Specifically, people were much more accurate in their 
perceptions of the demographics of the US population than of the incarcerated.  These differences 
may be related to frequency of contact with group members or media portrayals of these group 
members, two issues with obvious relevance to incarcerated individuals. Certainly, most individuals 
have infrequent contact with the incarcerated; however, portrayals of these individuals pervade media 
and news reports. This confluence may make it more likely that inaccurate beliefs may arise about 
incarcerated individuals. Given that people have quite inaccurate perceptions of highly salient 
features of the prison population, it is reasonable to hypothesize that perceptions of the criminality of 
those who are incarcerated may also be inaccurate.  Whether that is actually the case, however, is a 
question that must be left for future research.
This research empirically demonstrates several important points about social stereotypes in 
general, and beliefs about incarceration in particular.  First, we confess to having been quite surprised 
at the striking overestimate of the overall levels of incarceration, and, especially, that this pattern was 
not remotely reduced among our sample of criminal justice students.  Although we offered some 
speculations for this result, it clearly warrants further research, especially among anyone concerned 
about the quality of the education being received by students in criminal justice programs. Second, 
the pattern of people’s errors was quite clear, providing strong support for system justification theory. 
Stereotypes regarding the demographics of incarceration do indeed seem to rationalize and justify the 
higher status positions of Whites and men in particular. Lastly, stereotypes regarding the 

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