Friday, February 12, 2010

Kristin J. Anderson's "Benign Bigotry"

Kristin J. Anderson is Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Houston-Downtown, in Houston, Texas.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Benign Bigotry: The Psychology of Subtle Prejudice, and reported the following.
Benign Bigotry is about subtle forms of prejudice, so-called benign bigotry. Benign bigotry represents thinking and behavior that appears to be innocent and harmless but actually fosters some of the most insidious kinds prejudice. In the book, I address six common myths that reflect subtle forms of bias. For instance, one chapter is entitled, “They Must be Guilty of Something”: Myths of Criminality. Many Americans believe that the world is a just place--that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. Just-world thinking leads people to believe that when someone is accused of a crime, the accused is probably guilty of something. It is too difficult to conceive the possibility of an innocent person wasting away in jail.

Page 99 of the book lands the reader in the middle of a discussion on false confessions. Most people find it impossible to imagine themselves offering a false confession. Why would anyone ever admit to a crime they did not commit? False confessions are not necessary the result of “weak personalities” or a “guilty conscience” but rather the result of specific situations and processes that produce confessions from innocent individuals. On page 99 I describe three specific processes used by interrogators that are most often associated with false confessions. The first step is isolation. When any person is detained, held for long periods, deprived of sleep and rendered exhausted, they become susceptible to influence and their ability to make complex decisions is compromised. Typical criminal interrogations last 3-4 hours, but interrogations that produce false confessions average around 16 hours. Once a suspect is isolated, interrogators can confront them with false DNA evidence supposedly linking them to the crime. Interrogators can present phony eyewitnesses and can claim the suspect failed a polygraph. These techniques are admissible in U.S. courts. Confrontation then is the second process that can induce false confessions. The third process is minimization. To encourage a confession, an interrogator might use techniques to minimize the crime or the suspect’s culpability. For instance, the interrogator might provide a moral justification for committing the crime such as, “I’m sure he had it coming,” or face-saving excuses explaining why the crime was accidental. Minimization techniques can also include promises of leniency by the court. All the while, suspects believe that as soon as they confess, they can go home.

These three processes work together to form conditions in which people are likely to confess to crimes they did not commit. The “They Must be Guilty of Something” chapter addresses other illustrations of the important and often ignored powerful relationship between specific aspects of crime and bigotry, such as the depictions of black and brown criminal suspects in television news, the explanations people use to explain the criminal behavior of black and brown people versus white people, the bias inherent in death penalty cases, and more.
Read an excerpt from Benign Bigotry, and learn more about the book and author at the Cambridge University Press website and at Kristin J. Anderson's website.

--Marshal Zeringue