FCT (Portuguese National Science Foundation) has awarded funding (around 240k Euros) to a research proposal I submitted several months ago. The project is called “Nobody’s fault but your own: The role of meritocracy in legal decisions towards low status group members”. The project is coordinated by me and Jorge Vala will serve as co-PI. Jack Dovidio (Yale University) and Vincent Yzerbyt (Université Catholique de Louvain) will serve as consultants in this project. An extended abstract is presented below.
MiLD – The role of Meritocracy in Legal Decisions
We face trivial decisions everyday but every once in a while we face decisions with a deep impact on others as they may imply serious harm or unequal distribution of relevant material or symbolic resources. These socially critical decisions (SCD) – i.e. decisions that involve serious consequences for others – and specifically legal decisions (i.e. formal decisions regarding punishment for alleged illegal behaviors) constitute the core of this project and its main goal is to study whether and how the endorsment or a contextual salience of a meritocratic norm impacts on legal decisions towards low status group members.
Research on SCD within asymmetric social relations has focused on different examples such as “shoot vs. not-shoot” police decisions as a function of different ethnic target groups, medical decisions, moral dilemmas and legal decisions. A consistent result across these different decisional contexts indicates that low status group members (e.g. blacks, gipsies, homeless) are targeted with more unfavorable decisions and that implicit prejudice (e.g. stereotypes about these groups) may partially explain these discriminatory decisions. For example, looking in particular to legal decisions, a meta-analysis unequivocally demonstrated the existence of racial bias in studies addressing juror decision-making, where other-race defendants are generally targeted with more negative decisions. Moreover, and based on real-life legal decisions, defendants possessing afrocentric features (such as darker skin tone or wide nose) are more likely to be sentenced to death, even when controlling for a wide array of aspects such as the circumstances of the crime and criminal record.
However, research has been more focused in showing this group-based discrimination in SCD than in explaining it. Importantly, a significant factor that has been consistently shown to impact on group-based distinctions and intergroup biases has been neglected by this line of research: that is, the impact of a meritocratic norm. Although seen as an important social norm that regulates society, descriptive meritocracy, i.e. the belief that people are rewarded based on their efforts) is however associated with intolerance and dislike of members of low status groups and may therefore be logically associated with more unfavorable decisions towards low status groups. The potential reason for that may be that when meritocratic beliefs are salient, low status individuals are not seen as victims of a discriminatory system, but as responsible for their own negative situation. Thus, meritocracy may lead to an enhanced status legitimacy perception regarding the negative situation of low status groups. In turn, this perceived legitimacy may facilitate the emergence of negative decisions towards these low status group members. Particularly in legal decisions, making the norm of meritocracy salient in a given context may lead to more negative legal decisions where low status group members are more likely to be considered guilty and sentenced to harsher sentences. Nonetheless, to our knowledge, the impact of meritocracy has never been studied within the research on legal decisions. Moreover, and specifically regarding the Portuguese context, the existence of such bias in legal decisions has not been systematically addressed, even though there are indirect indications of its existence (e.g. statistics reveal a 15 times higher likelihood of people from PALOP countries being incarcerated).
Thus, several issues remain unsolved: Are low status group members targeted with more negative legal decisions in the Portuguese context? Does the salience of a descriptive meritocratic norm have an impact on such legal decisions? If so, how does that impact occur? Does the “powerful” role (in the sense of authoritative status) of those making the legal decisions facilitate this bias?
The team involved in this project has developed several lines of research studying the impact of normative and ideological factors on the facilitation of negative attitudes and discrimination of low status group members. Moreover, this same team has conducted studies directly addressing other types of SCD. Specifically, on-going research has shown, on the one hand, that making a meritocratic norm salient has led (high status) participants to view decisions involving the sacrifice of low status group members within moral dilemmas as more acceptable. On the other hand, research focused on medical decisions has shown that, when asked to make decisions about organ transplants, Portuguese participants, to whom the same meritocratic norm has been made salient, attribute less priority to non-portuguese patients (controlling for symptoms and medical history). Building on this research, we intend to apply the knowledge and experience to another very socially relevant setting: the legal setting.
Accordingly, this project involves correlational and experimental studies that, as a general approach, involve 1) either the manipulation of meritocracy salience or the measurement of meritocracy endorsement, 2) the measurement of status legitimacy perceptions of low status groups, and 3) the measurement of (ficticious) legal decisions. The legal decisions (towards low status group members) will focus on aspects such as likelihood and severity of sentences and decisions about parole. Studies will use samples of both lay people and professionals with formal implication in legal processes, namely judges or law graduates studying to become judges and legal workers who are responsible for producing assessments that form the bases of judges’ decisions to attribute (or not attribute) parole.
To manipulate meritocracy, we will use a version of the Scrambled Sentence Task successfully used to manipulate meritocracy before. In this task, unscrambled sentences make either meritocracy or neutral content salient. Alternatively, and for more nuanced activations of meritocratic content, a fake text comprehension task will be used. In studies involving instead the measurement of meritocracy, previously tested scales will be used. To measure status legitimacy perceptions, we will use items affirming the situation of low status groups as moral and appropriate, based on previous related scales. The manipulation/measurement of meritocracy and measures of legitimacy perceptions will either be included as additional aspects of the same study or presented as belonging to supposedly independent studies along with subtle cover stories to disguise their real purpose. Legal decisions will be developed in strict collaboration with experts from the legal system. For all purposes and measures, low status groups are construed here as groups that are seen as low status in both fundamental dimensions of stereotype content: warmth and competence as yielded by pre-tests, although a stronger focus on decisions involving individuals with different ethnic origins is envisioned. Stereotypes and prejudice towards low status groups will also be assessed to test the impact of our main variables over and above the effect of the former variables. Other specific variables (namely potential moderators) are specified in the description of the activities to be developed.
Concretely, the following activites are planned:
1) Activity 1 – Systematic review of the literature
2) Workpackage 1: Impact of meritocracy on legal decisions (with lay people)
3) Workpackage 2: Testing the impact of meritocracy in mock trial decisions using samples of judges or future judges
4) Workpackage 3: Testing the impact of meritocracy in decisions about parole (using samples of legal workers – “técnicos de reinserção profissional”)
5) Administrative management