The elderly are more likely to be racially biased than younger people because their mental ability to screen out stereotypes has deteriorated, a new study conducted by an Ohio State University psychologist says.
But older people are also more likely to say they oppose racism, according to the study, which appears in the May issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. The finding could alter the traditional understanding of jury dynamics, which has held until now that age isn’t likely to affect a jury member’s biases.
“I don’t think we’re saying something new in saying that [older people] are more prejudiced,” said William von Hippel, the report’s lead author. What the study revealed, he says, is that the reason for their behavior “is not that they grew up in more prejudiced times, but that, cognitively, it’s harder for them to inhibit prejudices and stereotypes. So it’s like they’re stereotyping against their will.”
Racial stereotypes are so pervasive that the mere sight of someone from a different race is enough to conjure up a whole selection of negative thoughts in most people, according to a generally accepted psychological theory. But people don’t always act on these stereotypes because they can mentally “inhibit” them as irrelevant, inaccurate or inappropriate.
Lack of inhibition
But Von Hippel found that older people are less able to block this irrelevant information, and, therefore, their judgment is more likely to be affected by the stereotypes.
“It’s the combination of a lack of inhibitory ability, and then failure to realize that your own thought processes might have been influenced by stereotyping and prejudice,” von Hippel said. “In a way, that’s sort of the bottom line here. If we could just get people more aware, perhaps they could go farther in correcting these thought processes.”
Scientists suspect deterioration in the brain’s frontal lobes, which control a person’s ability to maintain concentration, causes this change as a person ages.
Impact on verdicts?
Until now, jury consultants considered race and gender the only reliable predictors of jury bias, and only in specific circumstances. Studies conducted on mock juries showed blacks were more skeptical of police testimony, and women were more willing to convict in sexual assault and gender bias cases.
“If all you’re trying to predict is what kind of verdict a juror will make, and all you know about them is the demographic characteristic, such as age, you wouldn’t be able to do a very good job at all,” said Valerie P. Hans, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Delaware.
But Hans admitted that jury studies may lack the precision of von Hippel’s research.
“In terms of research that jury scholars have done, they look at impact on verdicts,” Hans said. “But a lot of things go into a verdict. It could be that there are some minor effects, small effects we simply can’t detect. They are simply not big enough to show up in verdict studies.”
With retired people more likely to sit on juries, particularly for longer, complicated cases, von Hippel said lawyers could take steps to mitigate the stereotyping effect. For instance, inhibiting thoughts is easier for people of all ages early in the day, when they are more alert.
Wanting to change
“In a sense, it’s a little bit of a positive note in saying that old people would like to change, would like to be less prejudiced,” von Hippel said. “It’s just harder for them to do so.”
Another psychologist suggested that individual jurors should understand that stereotypes could affect them in unexpected ways and that they should take steps to examine their own thought processes for these effects.
“You should be able to back up why you think a person is, let’s say, lazy or not smart,” said John Bargh, a psychologist from New York University who also studies stereotypes. “If you can do that and can honestly say this is why and have reasons, you’re in much better shape than just having these implicit assumptions.”