The role of social desirability and establishing nonracist credentials on mock juror decisions about Black defendants

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

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

7 Scopus citations


OBJECTIVE: Recently, experimental work on racial bias in legal settings has diverged from real-world field data demonstrating racial disparities, instead often producing null or potential overcorrection effects favoring Black individuals over White individuals. We explored the role of social desirability in these counterintuitive effects and tested whether allowing participants to establish nonracist moral credentials increased their willingness to convict a Black defendant. HYPOTHESES: We predicted that establishing nonracist moral credentials would increase convictions of Black defendants-especially for participants likely to harbor racial bias and external motivation to control it. METHOD: In two experiments, we randomly assigned White mock jurors (Study 1: N = 1,018; Study 2: N = 1,253) to establish nonracist moral credentials by acquitting a Black defendant in an initial case, acquit a White defendant in the same case, or see no prior case. Next, they judged an ambiguous case against a Black (Studies 1 and 2) or White (Study 2) defendant. After choosing verdicts, they provided open-ended guesses of what the study was about. Participants completed measures of explicit prejudice, motivations to control prejudice, and political orientation. RESULTS: Most participants who were asked to judge at least one Black defendant guessed that the study was about racial bias and convicted Black defendants less often than did those who guessed the study was about something else. White participants who established nonracist credentials were significantly more likely to convict Black defendants compared with White participants who did not establish nonracist credentials. Subsequent analyses revealed that conservatives showed this predicted credentialing pattern, whereas liberals did not. Credentialed liberals' convictions of Black defendants remained low; instead, they convicted White defendants more than did noncredentialed liberals. CONCLUSIONS: Social desirability plays a clear role in whether White people acquit Black defendants in experiments, which does not align with persistent racial bias in the legal system. Research participants' concern about looking prejudiced might undermine the validity of experiments investigating racial bias in legal settings by artificially inflating pro-Black judgments. The opportunity to credential oneself as nonracist, however, might make conservatives more comfortable making anti-Black legal judgments-whereas credentialed liberals continue to judge Black individuals more favorably than White individuals in legal settings. (PsycInfo Database Record (c) 2023 APA, all rights reserved).

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)100-118
Number of pages19
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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