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.


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

ex-insider trader

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.


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? )

John B. Chilton

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.


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?

Ken Butler

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

Taylor S. Marks


Just kidding; I have no idea.


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.

Juy John

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.

Enter your name...

> 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.


I'd wager the small amount of money might actually mean less to the inmates so possibly be more honest.


and as a scientist, I have to remind you not to base your conclusions on the results of just one study; remember, there could be other subtle biases that a replication may not repeat.


I work in the Fraud Risk Management function, in my line of work we interview lot of suspects that usually if one separates the incidents from the person they are more willing to admit it because then they look at it from a different perspective but if one keeps on linking the incident with the person they close down as nobody wants to admit that they did something wrong. So yes, priming works to a great extent because people don't want to be perceived as inconsistent!

S.M. Thomson

I think the reason women did less well in mathematic testing was not because they were "reminded" of their gender, but because they were made aware that their gender was considererd significant by the examiners.

Having something about ourselves seem significant to someone else will sometimes modify our behaviours as deep down we all want to be appreciated and will often do what we perceive is expected of us. My opinion was not scientifically deduced, just formed from observations.

Ni Meggeres

So does that mean that if I constantly tell my 6-year old boy how good of a eater he is, it's more likely that he will one day become a good eater, even though in fact he hasn't eaten more than 10 types of foods in his life?


Steve, here is a priming that you may test. In college, a philosophy prof at my school was known for saying the first day of class.
"look at the student to your right, then look at the student to your left, one of the two won't pass this class." (interestingly, by the next class period 1/3 of the students dropped the class. And the workload of the prof decreased proportionally. Of course (maybe), prof backed up threat with difficult grading.)

Surely, you know that advertisers use priming.

Tell a kid that he is great and who knows if the kid will study more or think (s)he does not need to study.

Jacob Rumley

will you take a freakonomics approach to questions in relation to religion, because as with many of the covered topics there are probably many relevant questions that can be asked of people approach to and view on religion. Saying that, why do you not expand the range of topics upon which you cover, I mean I think you're right to still categorize yourself as an economist and not social science academic, however crime dominates your repetoir and topics such as religion, sport the reliabilty of media and other aren't covered, when you'd assume there was much scope for it. This is far from criticism, it's more of me begging for more...

Sonia Rebecca Menezes

I suppose priming works in every area of our life, although it surprises me that someone in jail needs to be reminded of what it was that put them there. As he pointed out, it is rather implausible that a woman should be reminded of the fact that she is a woman!

Susie Q.

Interesting observation. In college, I worked as a research assistant in a social psychology lab that studied, almost exactly as you mentioned, women's scores on math exams following the act of indicating their gender. In addition to circling male or female, we exposed participants in the experimental condition to a series of questions about their same-sex friends/gender-typed personality characteristics.

I graduated from my program before finding out the results of these studies, but always felt that the exposure to 'gender flooding' was too implicit. I now feel intrigued to look up the outcomes.

Thanks, Dr. Levitt.