Counterintuitive race effects in legal and nonlegal contexts

Laura Smalarz, Rose E. Eerdmans, Megan L. Lawrence, Kylie Kulak, Jessica M. Salerno

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Scopus citations


OBJECTIVE: Despite documented racial disparities in all facets of the criminal justice system, recent laboratory attempts to investigate racial bias in legal settings have produced null effects or racial-bias reversals. These counterintuitive findings may be an artifact of laboratory participants' attempts to appear unprejudiced in response to social norms that proscribe expressions of racial bias against Black individuals. Furthermore, given pervasive stereotypes linking Black people with crime and heightened attention to issues of racial injustice in the legal system, laboratory participants may be especially likely to attempt to appear unprejudiced in studies examining judgments of Black individuals in legal as opposed to nonlegal contexts. HYPOTHESES: We predicted that counterintuitive race effects (null and pro-Black effects) are more likely to occur in laboratory research examining race in legal than in nonlegal contexts. METHOD: We conducted a quantitative review of race effects in three leading social psychology and legal psychology journals over the last four decades (Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin [PSPB]; Law and Human Behavior [LHB]; Psychology, Public Policy, and Law [PPPL]). We then conducted two experiments in which students (N = 314; Experiment 1) and Mechanical Turk workers (N = 695; Experiment 2) read descriptions of White and Black targets in either legal or nonlegal contexts and rated each target along various characteristics (e.g., dangerous, trustworthy). RESULTS: Our analysis of the literature indicated that counterintuitive race effects were more frequent in studies examining race in legal compared with nonlegal contexts. Our experiments likewise revealed that pro-Black race effects were stronger in legal than in nonlegal contexts. CONCLUSIONS: Laboratory research on racial bias against Black people-especially in legal settings-may produce misleading conclusions about the effects of race on important real-world outcomes. Methodological innovations for studying racial bias are needed. (PsycInfo Database Record (c) 2023 APA, all rights reserved).

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)119-136
Number of pages18
JournalLaw and human behavior
Issue number1
StatePublished - Feb 1 2023

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
  • General Psychology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health
  • Law


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