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Imprisoned Imperceptions: Inaccuracy in Incarceration Demographic Stereotypes
Unformatted Document Text:  Incarceration Beliefs the media and the general public are fascinated by crime and the criminal justice system (Altheide, 1997; Skogan, 1986). The public’s fear of crime is higher than the actual risk posed by criminal victimization (Warr, 1995), and they perceive annual increases in crime rates when such increases do not exist (Gallup, 2006). These risk-related perceptions of crime and criminals may affect behavior in several ways. If people perceive rampant crime, they may be more likely to elect officials who take highly punitive stances on criminal behavior. Beliefs that members of certain racial groups are more likely to be criminals may affect treatment of such individuals and influence support for punitive public policies regarding those social groups. Understanding other factors that correlate with incarceration (i.e., educational attainment, mental illness) may affect policies toward education and mental health. Therefore, it is particularly important to investigate how individuals perceive the incarcerated population. In the present study, we examined the accuracy of people’s beliefs about the demographic characteristics of the incarcerated population in the United States. Specifically, we assessed participants’ beliefs about the proportion of the prison population comprised by each of several demographic groups (women, African-Americans, Latinos, Whites, the mentally ill, and those with a high school diploma). As a comparison, we also assessed people’s beliefs about the proportion of the U.S. population comprised by each of these same social groups. In addition, we tested hypotheses about the role of each of three stereotyping processes (ingroup bias, system justification, exaggeration) in producing errors in beliefs about the demographics of incarceration. We also compared the accuracy of laypeople to people with, presumably greater expertise in criminal justice (college students majoring in criminal justice studies). Hypotheses Underestimation of advantaged groups and overestimation of disadvantaged groups? System justification theory (Jost & Banaji, 1994) proposes that people’s stereotypes largely serve to maintain 5

Authors: Ragusa, Laura.
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Incarceration Beliefs
the media and the general public are fascinated by crime and the criminal justice system (Altheide, 
1997; Skogan, 1986). The public’s fear of crime is higher than the actual risk posed by criminal 
victimization (Warr, 1995), and they perceive annual increases in crime rates when such increases do 
not exist (Gallup, 2006).  
These risk-related perceptions of crime and criminals may affect behavior in several ways.  If 
people perceive rampant crime, they may be more likely to elect officials who take highly punitive 
stances on criminal behavior. Beliefs that members of certain racial groups are more likely to be 
criminals may affect treatment of such individuals and influence support for punitive public policies 
regarding those social groups. Understanding other factors that correlate with incarceration (i.e., 
educational attainment, mental illness) may affect policies toward education and mental health. 
Therefore, it is particularly important to investigate how individuals perceive the incarcerated 
population. In the present study, we examined the accuracy of people’s beliefs about the demographic 
characteristics of the incarcerated population in the United States. Specifically, we assessed 
participants’ beliefs about the proportion of the prison population comprised by each of several 
demographic groups (women, African-Americans, Latinos, Whites, the mentally ill, and those with a 
high school diploma).  As a comparison, we also assessed people’s beliefs about the proportion of the 
U.S. population comprised by each of these same social groups. In addition, we tested hypotheses 
about the role of each of three stereotyping processes (ingroup bias, system justification, 
exaggeration) in producing errors in beliefs about the demographics of incarceration.  We also 
compared the accuracy of laypeople to people with, presumably greater expertise in criminal justice 
(college students majoring in criminal justice studies). 
Underestimation of advantaged groups and overestimation of disadvantaged groups?  System 
justification theory (Jost & Banaji, 1994) proposes that people’s stereotypes largely serve to maintain 

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