The Influence of Race, Heuristics, and Information Load on Judgments of Guilt and Innocence

By Tamborini, Ron; Huang, Ren-He et al. | Communication Studies, December 2007 | Go to article overview

The Influence of Race, Heuristics, and Information Load on Judgments of Guilt and Innocence


Tamborini, Ron, Huang, Ren-He, Mastro, Dana, Nabashi-Nakahara, Reiko, Communication Studies


This study applies the heuristic-systematic model to explore the influence of race and judicial-system heuristics on jury decision-making. In a mock-jury investigation, a 3x2 experimental design varied a trial descriptions information load (high, medium, low) and defendant's race (Caucasian, African American). Two participant groups (Caucasian, African American) judged defendant characteristics and guilt. Observations demonstrate that race and legal-system heuristics alter guilt judgments. First, although Caucasian judgments were unaffected by race, an accused African American benefited from disproportionately positive judgments by African American appraisers. Second, information load moderated heuristic influence on guilt judgments. High load strengthened the negative effect of perceived judicial-system bias on verdicts of innocence.

Keywords: Decision Making; Heuristic-Systematic Model; Information Overload; Judicial Bias; Racial Stereotypes

When serving as a juror and attempting to reach a just verdict, using stereotypes to judge a person's guilt or innocence is improper by almost all social or legal standards--even if the stereotypic belief serves merely as a trivial cue shaping the final decision. Nevertheless, the use of these devices seems highly likely when such decisions are made. Fiske and Taylor (1991) suggest that in suboptimal-information environments, individuals are active in decoding information and often apply stereotypes in order to simplify complex judgment tasks and to facilitate information processing. When factors such as time constraints, fatigue, and information volume put pressure on an individual's mental resources, reliance on heuristics may replace more thoughtful deliberation (Lam, Chiu, Lau, Chan, & Yim, 2006). Under such suboptimal conditions, which are characteristic of jury settings, existing knowledge structures such as stereotypes may find their way into people's judgments (Lam et al, 2006).

This is likely to have important implications for legal decision-making, particularly in cases where stereotypes play a strong role, such as those involving minority defendants and ambiguous evidence. Indeed, this supposition is consistent with prior research concluding that African American defendants are victims of disparate treatment due to the abusive influence of stereotypes (Miethe & Moore, 1986). The present study attempts to determine the role that information load plays in this process. Based on the belief that information load increases the use of heuristic cues that shape judgments, we investigate two decision-making processes. First we observe the extent to which heuristics related to race and key judicial-system beliefs can influence jury judgments. Second, we assess the manner in which information load can moderate heuristic influence on these decision-making outcomes.

Heuristic-Systematic Model and Stereotype Use

The heuristic-systematic model (HSM) has been proposed to explain the cognitive information processing of messages in persuasion contexts (Chaiken, 1987). When people engage in cognitive processing, they seek to establish the "validity" of information, that is, people's primary motivational concern is to attain accurate judgments that square with relevant facts. According to Chaiken (1987), there are two mediational pathways used to process incoming information in these situations, systematic processing and heuristic processing. Eagly and Chaiken (1993) conceptualized systematic processing as "a comprehensive, analytic orientation to information processing in which perceivers access and scrutinize a great deal of information for its relevance to their judgment task" (p. 326). Systematic processing requires greater effort to scrutinize arguments and to evaluate issues in order to judge the validity of the position advocated in a message (Chaiken, 1987).

Heuristic processing is conceptualized as "a more limited mode of information processing that requires less cognitive effort and fewer cognitive resources than systematic processing" (Eagly 8c Chaiken, 1993, p. …

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