Don’t Remind Criminals They Are Criminals

(Photo: Ian Britton)

(Photo: Ian Britton)

Psychologists have long argued about the power of priming, i.e the power of subtle cues and reminders to influence behavior.  For instance, there are a number of academic papers that find that if you make a woman write down her name and circle her gender before taking a math test, she will do substantially worse than if she just writes her name.  The idea is that women perceive that they are not good at math, and circling their gender reminds them that they are women and therefore should be bad at math.  I’ve always been skeptical of these results (and indeed failed to replicate them in one study I did with Roland Fryer and John List) because gender is such a powerful part of our identities that it’s hard for me to believe that we need to remind women that they are women! 

In an interesting new study, “Bad Boys: The Effect of Criminal Identity on Dishonesty,” Alain Cohn, Michel Andre Marechal, and Thomas Noll find some fascinating priming effects.  They went into a maximum security prison and had prisoners privately flip coins and then report how many times the coin came up “heads.”  The more “heads” they got, the more money they received.  While the authors can’t tell if any one prisoner is honest or not, they know that on average “heads” comes up half the time, so they can measure in aggregate how much lying there is.  Before the study, they had half the prisoners answer the question “What were you convicted for?” and the other half “How many hours per week do you watch television on average?”  The result: 66 percent “heads” in the treatment where they ask about convictions and “only” 60 percent “heads” in the TV treatment. 

How dishonest are prisoners versus everyday people?  When they play the same game with regular citizens, the coin comes up “heads” 56% of the time. 

So how powerful is that one question on conviction?  The behavior of the prisoners who are asked the TV question is actually closer to that of regular citizens than it is to the behavior of the prisoners who were primed.

 As an economist, I hate the idea that priming might work.  As an empiricist, I guess I better get used to it.

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  1. Patricia says:

    They can’t move on if the labels are not dropped.

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  2. ex-insider trader says:

    Very true.

    The description used in the Canadian penal system to identify those within it is “offenders” as in “Would the following Offenders report to the…” I hated that word and tried to encourage the use of “rehabilitants” by staff (I thought that a better place to begin than get the men to stop calling themselves Cons or Convicts). Calling someone an Offender just emphasized the negative aspect of what they did whereas the word rehabilitant has as its focus what you wanted the men to be doing (rehabilitating …. and, yes, I know it is a made-up word).

    Great website.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 25 Thumb down 4
    • buck says:

      maybe you should not say that you ‘hate’ the use of the word offended, as the word ‘hate’ is offensive. Maybe your approach is ‘hated’ by those who you work with as it was deemed offensive and demeaning of existing philosphy and taken as a personal insult….Duh! (get my point?) Instead, consider

      Staff may wish to consider less caustic termonology for offenders serving probation. Please consider a change to refer to offenders serving a probationary period as…??? (parolees? )

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  3. John B. Chilton says:

    Have any priming studies been done on undergraduate economics majors to see if priming makes them more likely to free ride or, in ultimatum games ask for the ultimate?

    I’ve heard students tell me that they play that way in experiments, but they never do so to such an extent in real life.

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  4. Aaron says:

    Isn’t this just another example of anchoring, where if you ask people what the last 4 digits of their SSN is and then ask them an obscure numerical question, people with high SSN’s will on average guess higher than people with low numbers?

    If that is believable, why is this surprising?

    An interesting question is if you would get the same results by priming average people with their own personal information. I’d expect the answer is yes. Could this be as powerful or more powerful than other inducements for people to cheat on this and other tests?

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  5. Ken Butler says:

    Sample sizes? Otherwise, it’s impossible to know whether we should get excited about the difference between 60% and 66%.

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  6. James says:

    I wonder whether taking a subset of the prisoners who were convicted of crimes involving actual dishonesty – robbery, fraud, and such – would show different results than just random prisoners. After all, many murderers, drug dealers, and so on might be no less honest than the average person.

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  7. Juy John says:

    I completely agree with this post. I think everything said in this is true. I don’t think the criminals should be put out in public and looked at as “super villains” because then they will want to do more and starting a snowball effect getting other bad people to join in on the bad stuff.

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  8. Enter your name... says:

    > How dishonest are prisoners versus everyday people?

    It might be fairer to say, how much motivated are very poor prisoners to get a small amount of extra money, compared to the average person who shows up for a psych study?

    It might be interesting to run that test again, only this time using people at a food bank, long-term unemployed people, etc.

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