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Imagining violent criminals: an experimental investigation of music stereotypes and character judgments

Abstract

Objectives

In criminal cases, prosecutors treat defendant-authored rap lyrics as an admission of guilt rather than as art or entertainment. Do negative stereotypes about rap music shape jurors’ attitudes about the defendant, unfairly influencing outcomes? Replicating and extending previous research (Fischoff Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 29(4), 795–805, 1999; Fried Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 26(23), 2135–2146, 1996; Dunbar et al. Public Policy, and Law, 22(3), 280–292, 2016), the current study begins to address these questions.

Methods

Using an experimental approach, participants were presented with music lyrics and asked to make judgments about the person who wrote the lyrics. All participants read the same lyrics but were told they were from a country, heavy metal, or rap song, depending upon the condition into which they were randomly assigned. Again using random assignment, participants were provided with information about the race of the songwriter in a photo of a young man. Finally, participants were tasked with judging the character of the songwriter, including traits such as his violent nature and criminal disposition.

Results

We find that writers of violent “rap” lyrics are perceived more negatively than writers who pen identical country and heavy metal lyrics. We also find that songwriter race matters; no differences in judgments were detected between the White and Black songwriters; however, when race information was not provided, participants who inferred the songwriter was Black judged him more negatively than participants who inferred he was White.

Conclusions

These findings have implications for racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

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Fig. 1
Fig. 2

Notes

  1. For additional information and examples of these cases, see Kubrin and Nielson (2014).

  2. Only participants who identified the songwriter as White or Black were included in these analyses because too few participants selected some other racial category. In particular, only one participant indicated that the songwriter was Asian, one participant indicated he was Native American, and four selected “other” race.

  3. Given that too few participants in the control inferred that the country and heavy metal songwriters were Black and that the rapper was white, a two-way ANOVA could not be conducted to determine the interactive effect of imagined race of the songwriter and the genre of the lyrics.

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Correspondence to Charis E. Kubrin.

Appendix

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Table 3 Response items used to assess character of songwriter

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Dunbar, A., Kubrin, C.E. Imagining violent criminals: an experimental investigation of music stereotypes and character judgments. J Exp Criminol 14, 507–528 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11292-018-9342-6

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Keywords

  • Person perception
  • Rap music
  • Evidence
  • Criminal law