Category Archives: Human behavior

New studies reveal deep, deadly racial biases


Republicans declaim endlessly their claim that Americans live in a “post-racial” society, where folks are judged solely by their abilities and not by the color of their skin.

Hence, no need for programs designed to teach tolerance, or to attempt to repair the damages wrought by centuries of bigotry, poor schools, and dangerous environments.

Of course anyone who listened to the virulent bigotry aroused by the Trump campaign knows the Republican rap is, in Fareed Zakaria’s notable phrasing, bullshit.

For those with any lingering doubts, considered the results of four new academic surveys, revealing that, among other things:

  • innocent black people are about 12 times more likely to be convicted of drug crimes than innocent white people
  • police view young black criminal suspects as both older and more likely to be guilty of serious offenses than they do white or Latino suspects in identical circumstances
  • people in general judge black men as larger, stronger and more muscular than white men, even when they’re exactly the same size
  • motorists approaching mid-block crosswalks are less likely to yield for black pedestrians than white pedestrians

With liberty and justice for some. . .

The power of the state is no more evident than a confrontation with a person with a badge and a gun, followed by a run through the meat-grinder that is the criminal justice system for those unable to afford expensive lawyers and costly investigators.

And those unfortunates are all too often people of color.

One way to judge the relative impartiality of a system professing to administer itself without bias is in those found guilty and sentenced to prison or death who were subsequently exonerated and freed.

From Michigan State University:

African-American prisoners who were convicted of murder are about 50 percent more likely to be innocent than other convicted murderers and spend longer in prison before exoneration, according to a report recently released that’s co-edited by a Michigan State University College of Law professor.

“The vast majority of wrongful convictions are never discovered,” said MSU Law’s Barbara O’Brien, the author of a companion report, “Exonerations in 2016,” [open access] and editor of the National Registry of Exonerations. “There’s no doubt anymore that innocent people get convicted regularly—that’s beyond dispute. Increasingly, police, prosecutors and judges recognize this problem. But will we do enough to actually address it? That remains to be seen.”

“Exonerations in 2016” found a record number of exonerations for the third straight year and a record number of cases with official misconduct.

The National Registry of Exonerations is a joint project of the University of California Irvine Newkirk Center for Science and Society, University of Michigan Law School and Michigan State University College of Law. The registry provides detailed information about every known exoneration in the United States since 1989 – cases in which a person was wrongly convicted of a crime and later cleared of all the charges based on new evidence of innocence.

The 2016 data show convictions that led to murder exonerations with black defendants were more likely to involve misconduct by police officers than those with white defendants. On average, black murder exonerees waited three years longer in prison before release than whites.

Judging from exonerations, a black prisoner serving time for sexual assault is three-and-a-half times more likely to be innocent than a white person convicted of sexual assault. On average, innocent African-Americans convicted of sexual assault spent almost four-and-a-half years longer in prison before exoneration than innocent whites.

In addition, the report, officially titled, “Race and Wrongful Convictions in the United States” [open access], found innocent black people are about 12 times more likely to be convicted of drug crimes than innocent white people.

Since 1989, more than 1,800 defendants have been cleared in “group exonerations” that followed 15 large-scale police scandals in which officers systematically framed innocent defendants. The overwhelming majority were African-American defendants framed for drug crimes that never occurred.

“Of the many costs the war on drugs inflicts on the black community, the practice of deliberately charging innocent defendants with fabricated crimes may be the most shameful,” said University of Michigan Law Professor Samuel Gross, the author of “Race and Wrongful Convictions in the United States” and senior editor of the National Registry of Exonerations.

Last year, there were more exonerations than in any previous year in which government officials committed misconduct; the convictions were based on guilty pleas; no crime actually occurred; and a prosecutorial conviction integrity unit worked on the exoneration.

Police attribute more guilt, age to black youth suspects

One reason for those high exoneration rates for people of color can be found in a new study of how police attribute guilt and age when confronting black youth in suspicious circumstances.

The findings represent yet one more piece of evidence of deep flaws in our criminal justice system.

From the American Psychological Association:

Black boys as young as 10 may not be viewed in the same light of childhood innocence as their white peers, but are instead more likely to be mistaken as older, be perceived as guilty and face police violence if accused of a crime, according to new research published by the American Psychological Association.

“Children in most societies are considered to be in a distinct group with characteristics such as innocence and the need for protection. Our research found that black boys can be seen as responsible for their actions at an age when white boys still benefit from the assumption that children are essentially innocent,” said author Phillip Atiba Goff, PhD, of the University of California, Los Angeles. The study [open access] was published online in APA’s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Researchers tested 176 police officers, mostly white males, average age 37, in large urban areas, to determine their levels of two distinct types of bias — prejudice and unconscious dehumanization of black people by comparing them to apes. To test for prejudice, researchers had officers complete a widely used psychological questionnaire with statements such as “It is likely that blacks will bring violence to neighborhoods when they move in.” To determine officers’ dehumanization of blacks, the researchers gave them a psychological task in which they paired blacks and whites with large cats, such as lions, or with apes. Researchers reviewed police officers’ personnel records to determine use of force while on duty and found that those who dehumanized blacks were more likely to have used force against a black child in custody than officers who did not dehumanize blacks. The study described use of force as takedown or wrist lock; kicking or punching; striking with a blunt object; using a police dog, restraints or hobbling; or using tear gas, electric shock or killing. Only dehumanization and not police officers’ prejudice against blacks — conscious or not — was linked to violent encounters with black children in custody, according to the study.

A: Participants’ average age estimation accuracy for child suspects of different race. B: Participants’ average culpability rating for child suspects of different races. Error bars represent standard errors. From the study [open access].
Click on the image to enlarge.

The authors noted that police officers’ unconscious dehumanization of blacks could have been the result of negative interactions with black children, rather than the cause of using force with black children. “We found evidence that overestimating age and culpability based on racial differences was linked to dehumanizing stereotypes, but future research should try to clarify the relationship between dehumanization and racial disparities in police use of force,” Goff said.

The study also involved 264 mostly white, female undergraduate students from large public U.S. universities. In one experiment, students rated the innocence of people ranging from infants to 25-year-olds who were black, white or an unidentified race. The students judged children up to 9 years old as equally innocent regardless of race, but considered black children significantly less innocent than other children in every age group beginning at age 10, the researchers found.

The students were also shown photographs alongside descriptions of various crimes and asked to assess the age and innocence of white, black or Latino boys ages 10 to 17. The students overestimated the age of blacks by an average of 4.5 years and found them more culpable than whites or Latinos, particularly when the boys were matched with serious crimes, the study found. Researchers used questionnaires to assess the participants’ prejudice and dehumanization of blacks. They found that participants who implicitly associated blacks with apes thought the black children were older and less innocent.

In another experiment, students first viewed either a photo of an ape or a large cat and then rated black and white youngsters in terms of perceived innocence and need for protection as children. Those who looked at the ape photo gave black children lower ratings and estimated that black children were significantly older than their actual ages, particularly if the child had been accused of a felony rather than a misdemeanor.

“The evidence shows that perceptions of the essential nature of children can be affected by race, and for black children, this can mean they lose the protection afforded by assumed childhood innocence well before they become adults,” said co-author Matthew Jackson, PhD, also of UCLA. “With the average age overestimation for black boys exceeding four-and-a-half years, in some cases, black children may be viewed as adults when they are just 13 years old.”

The mind creates that ‘menacing big black man’

There’s something about the stereotype of the menacing big black man in films and other aspects of popular culture that you could almost make an acronymn of it, just as porn sites have made BBC descriptive another attribution about black males and size.

But it is in intersection of the menacing big black man stereotype and people with guns that makes a myth downright deadly  especially when most of us have an implicit bias to see black men as both larger more menacing than they would a white man in the same situation.

The findings have deep and troubling implications.

Consider, then, this new research from the American Psychological Association:

People have a tendency to perceive black men as larger and more threatening than similarly sized white men, according to research just published by the American Psychological Association.

“Unarmed black men are disproportionately more likely to be shot and killed by police, and often these killings are accompanied by explanations that cite the physical size of the person shot,” said lead author John Paul Wilson, PhD, of Montclair State University. “Our research suggests that these descriptions may reflect stereotypes of black males that do not seem to comport with reality.”

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Quote of the day: The secret of Trump’s budget


From Michael Paarlberg, lecturer in government at Georgetown University, writing in the Guardian:

Trump’s budget isn’t about saving money – he’s said so himself, that military spending is “more important” than a balanced budget. And it isn’t about rebuilding a “depleted” military for a country that already spends more on defense than the next twelve countries combined. Trump’s plan is about catering to his base. Not the fabled white working class, who will soon lose their WIC, heating subsidies, and job training. No, his real base, those golfing buddies and board members at companies like Lockheed, who want lower taxes and access to the government spigot, and want poor people to pay for it all.

It’s also about disciplining the deep state. Notably, the agencies facing the sharpest cuts are not the most expensive but those Trump has suspected of disloyalty: the EPA, state department and the USDA, all of which Trump’s transition team sought to muzzle and requested lists of names of employees working on programs he opposes.

Taken as a whole, Trump’s proposal points to an increasingly paranoid strongman who sees budgets as tools to reward friends and punish enemies, the military as a personal ornament, and poor Americans as piggy banks for his boondoggles and vanity projects.

Map of the day: Europe’s low fertility rates


Europe is undergoing a population implosion.

While some countries have higher birth rates than others, no country produces enough babies to maintain a constant population.

One has to wonder if the phenomenon contributes to Europe’s rising tide of xenophobia.

From Eurostat:

More from Eurostat:

In 2015, 5.103 million babies were born in the European Union (EU), compared with 5.063 million in 2001 (the first year comparable statistics are available). Among Member States, France continued to record the highest number of births (799,700in 2015), ahead of the United Kingdom (776,700), Germany (737,600), Italy (485,800), Spain (418,400) and Poland (369,300).

On average in the EU, women who gave birth to their first child in 2015 were aged nearly 29 (28.9 years). Across Member States, first time mothers were the youngest in Bulgaria and the oldest in Italy.

Overall, the total fertility rate in the EU increased from 1.46 in 2001 to 1.58 in 2015. It varied between Member States from 1.31 in Portugal to 1.96 in France in 2015. A total fertility rate of around 2.1 live births per woman is considered to be the replacement level in developed countries: in other words, the average number of live births per woman required to keep the population size constant without migration.

Total fertility rate below the replacement level of 2.1 in all Member States

In 2015, France (1.96) and Ireland (1.92) were the two Member State with total fertility rates closest to the replacement level of around 2.1. They were followed by Sweden (1.85) and the United Kingdom (1.80). Conversely, the lowest fertility rates were observed in Portugal (1.31), Cyprus and Poland (both 1.32), Greece and Spain (both 1.33) as well as Italy (1.35).

In most Member States, the total fertility rate rose in 2015 compared with 2001. The largest increases were observed in Latvia (from 1.22 in 2001 to 1.70 in 2015, or +0.48), the Czech Republic (+0.42), Lithuania (+0.41), Slovenia (+0.36), Bulgaria (+0.32), Romania (+0.31), Sweden (+0.28) and Estonia (+0.26). In contrast, the highest decreases were registered in Cyprus (-0.25), Luxembourg (-0.19) and Portugal (-0.14). For the EU as a whole, the total fertility rate increased from 1.46 in 2001 to 1.58 in 2015 (+0.12).

Headline of the day II: We leave the punchline to you


From the Miami Herald:

Hot story: Miami lawyer’s pants erupt in flames during arson trial in court

  • A Miami defense lawyer’s pants burst into flames Wednesday afternoon as he began his closing arguments in front of a jury — in an arson case.
  • Stephen Gutierrez, who was arguing that his client’s car spontaneously combusted and was not intentionally set on fire, had been fiddling in his pocket as he was about to address jurors when smoke began billowing out his right pocket, witnesses told the Miami Herald.
  • He rushed out of the Miami courtroom, leaving spectators stunned. After jurors were ushered out, Gutierrez returned unharmed, with a singed pocket, and insisted it wasn’t a staged defense demonstration gone wrong, observers said.
  • Instead, Gutierrez blamed a faulty battery in an e-cigarette, witnesses told the Miami Herald.

Study: Adversity leads to political radicalization


Want a simple formula for making a radical? Subject someone to personal adversity.

It’s something we all know intuitively.

The Russian Revolution was fueled by personal adversity, both in the impact of mass casualties and a losing war effort, and by hunger brought on by the war.

Similarly, the rise of the Nazis was directly fueled by the 1929 global economic crash.

We’ll leave conclusions about more recent events to you.

Now research directly links personal adversity to radical to development of radical political beliefs.

From the University of California, Irvine:

People who experience adversity are likely to become more extreme in their existing political beliefs, according to a recent study led by Roxane Cohen Silver, professor of psychology & social behavior at the University of California, Irvine.

Both the number of past stressful events and those occurring over the prior year consistently predicted more firmly held opinions, whether conservative or liberal.

“We found that adults who experience a range of adverse events over their lifetimes, such as serious illness or a community disaster, are more likely to express extreme or polarized views on a variety of topics. This appears to be the case even when those topics, such as political opinions, have little or nothing to do with the adverse events they encountered,” Cohen Silver said. “Our study suggests that traumatic experiences may lead to long-lasting changes in a person’s tendency to become more polarized in his or her political attitudes.”

The research, recently published online in the journal Social Psychological & Personality Science [$36 to read], used data from the three-year Societal Implications Study, which involved a nationally representative sample of 1,613 Americans, ranging in age from 18 to over 90, across a wide variety of economic, educational, religious, ethnic and political categories. Participants completed surveys annually between 2006 and early 2009 that measured lifetime exposure to and recent occurrences of negative incidents, as well as their views on several political subjects. Continue reading

Why are we fat? Republicans, Democrats disagree


If the recent elections have taught us anything, it’s that Democrats and Republicans are so deeply divided that one might reasonably argue that the system has broken down, with folks of great wealth fueling the divisions for their own ends.

So how deeply divided are the two parties?

Well, they can’t even agree on what makes folks fat.

It’s that old nature/nurture divide that lurks beneath so much of political divisiveness, with the Republicans arguing that Calvinism, with its doctrine of predestination, rules at the bathroom scales, while Democrats argue that it’s something fueled by the environment.

From the University of Kansas:

People’s political leanings and their own weight shape opinions on obesity-related public policies, according to a new study by two University of Kansas researchers.

Actually, Republicans — no matter how much they weigh —  believe eating and lifestyle habits cause obesity, the research found.

But among Democrats there is more of a dividing line, said Mark Joslyn, professor of political science. Those who identify themselves as overweight are more likely to believe genetic factors cause obesity.

“Self-reported overweight people were significantly more likely to believe obesity is caused by genetics than normal weight people,” Joslyn said. “The belief that obesity is due to genetics tends to remove blame. Obesity is not a choice, some would argue, but rather people are simply genetically wired to be obese. In this way, overweight people are motivated to believe in the genetics-obesity link. We found normal weight people were not so motivated.”

Joslyn and Don Haider-Markel, chair and professor of the Department of Political Science, published their findings [$36 to read] recently in the journal American Politics Research.

The research could have important implications for policymakers, especially at the local and state levels that tend to focus on public health interventions, either through appealing to healthy lifestyles by constructing biking and walking paths to encourage exercise or by passing stricter regulations on food and drinks, such as demanding publication of calorie counts and levying taxes on soft drinks.

Former New York City Mayor — and billionaire — Michael Bloomberg has donated millions of dollars to fund pro-soda tax initiatives in major cities. Berkeley, California, and Philadelphia are among those that have passed them in recent years. Obesity rates have risen recently in the United States, as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in 2015 that 71 percent of adults were overweight and more than 17 percent of youths were obese.

Still, most Americans oppose bans on large-size drinks and higher soda taxes, Joslyn said, which is likely a disparity between the perception of the problem and support for government intervention. Those who have argued against soda taxes, for example, often refer to a “nanny state,” blaming government intervention when they perceive personal choice is causing the problem.

For policymakers, as obesity rates continue to climb and the debate surrounding how to make people healthier continues, the genetic attribution as a cause may continue to rise as well, which could influence people’s opposition to certain practices.

“To the extent that genetic attributions increase in popularity, stronger opposition to discriminatory hiring practices by weight can be expected,” Joslyn said.

Also, it’s likely the issue remains politicized because most Republicans are inclined to support individual blame for obesity and not supportive of government regulations.

Finally, while the soda taxes have gained much attention, most government action recently does seem to be directed toward changing people’s individual behavior, such as developing public spaces to encourage fitness and ways to discourage unhealthy eating habits, like publication of calorie counts.

“If obesity persists in the face of such initiatives, blame and discrimination of obese people is likely to continue,” Joslyn said. “On the other hand, if governments treat obesity similar to diseases that afflict the population, as circumstances beyond the control of individuals, then individual blame and discrimination may diminish.”

Program notes

The genome dynamically interacts with the environment as chemical switches that regulate gene expression receive cues from stress, diet, behavior, toxins and other factors. Epigenetics is the study of these reactions and the factors that influence them.

So what’s it all about?

From Scientific American:

In a study published in late 2011 in Nature, Stanford University geneticist Anne Brunet and colleagues described a series of experiments that caused nematodes raised under the same environmental conditions to experience dramatically different lifespans. Some individuals were exceptionally long-lived, and their descendants, through three generations, also enjoyed long lives. Clearly, the longevity advantage was inherited. And yet, the worms, both short- and long-lived, were genetically identical.

This type of finding—an inherited difference that cannot be explained by variations in genes themselves—has become increasingly common, in part because scientists now know that genes are not the only authors of inheritance. There are ghostwriters, too. At first glance, these scribes seem quite ordinary—methyl, acetyl, and phosphoryl groups, clinging to proteins associated with DNA, or sometimes even to DNA itself, looking like freeloaders at best. Their form is far from the elegant tendrils of DNA that make up genes, and they are fleeting, in a sense, erasable, very unlike genes, which have been passed down through generations for millions of years. But they do lurk, and silently, they exert their power, modifying DNA and controlling genes, influencing the chaos of nucleic and amino acids. And it is for this reason that many scientists consider the discovery of these entities in the late 20th century as a turning point in our understanding of heredity, as possibly one of the greatest revolutions in modern biology—the rise of epigenetics.

Continue reading

Headline of the day: Tempestuous TrumpLandia™


From the McClatchy Washington Bureau, a tale of life in TrumpAmerica™:

YMCA won’t let members watch cable news while working out anymore for ‘safety’ reasons

  • In the Greater Scranton, Pennsylvania, YMCA, there’s now one less way to elevate your blood pressure
  • That’s because the gym’s board of directors has voted to ban cable news from its building after several locker room and gym disputes over politics and news turned so heated that some members feared for their safety, according to multiple media reports
  • In a letter sent out to members, the board wrote that 24-hour news channels like CNN, MSNBC and Fox News have given rise to intense confrontations, which have “raised concerns about the safety, both physically and emotionally, of our members”