Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
May 04, 2020

What We Get Wrong About the Criminal Justice System

by James P. Dunlea
multicultural prisoners playing chess behind prison bars

Human beings are exceptionally curious creatures. Beginning early in life, humans seek to understand why things happen by asking questions. Not only do humans ask “why” questions, they also readily communicate their personal theories about why things happen and why people behave like they do. In other words, people generate their own causal explanations.

People often generate explanations of other people’s behavior that highlight the internal characteristics of the person rather than external factors that might have caused them to behave as they did. For example, if asked to explain why a co-worker was late for work, people will probably refer to their co-worker’s internal characteristics, such as his or her  inherent laziness or tardiness, as opposed to mentioning external factors beyond his or her control, such as the fact that his bus was late. Larisa Heiphetz and I built on this idea by asking people to explain why others might come in contact with the criminal justice system.

An enormous amount of data suggests that external factors—such as racism, poverty, and other forms of inequality—play a critical role in incarceration within the United States. In support of this point, consider that, in the United States, Black people make up approximately 13% of the population but 40% of the people who are incarcerated. Moreover, chew over the finding that people who are incarcerated had a median income of $19,185 prior to incarceration—a figure that is approximately 40% less than non-incarcerated people of a similar age. And this finding applies to people regardless of their gender, race, or ethnicity. Given that societal inequality and contact with the justice system are so deeply intertwined, we thought that people might be likely to generate externally-focused, societal explanations for incarceration, even though that’s not what people normally do.

We tested this possibility by studying two groups of research participants—a group of 6- to 8-year-olds and a group of adults, all living in the United States. We told participants about an individual who was in jail or prison and asked how much they agreed with different explanations for his incarceration. Two of the explanations referred to causes that involved the person himself—that the person was incarcerated because “he is a bad person” or because “he did something wrong.” Another explanation referred to an external, societal-level cause, namely that the person was incarcerated because “he didn’t have very much money when he was growing up.”

Participants underestimated the extent to which societal factors affect incarceration: they more readily endorsed and generated individual-level explanations that mentioned internal or behavioral factors than explanations that referenced societal factors. Specifically, both children and adults generated and endorsed behavioral explanations for incarceration. For example, participants often explained that people experience incarceration because they “have committed a crime.” However, children were more likely than adults to generate and agree with explanations highlighting internal reasons for incarceration, such as being a “bad” person.

Why would people generate and endorse individual-level explanations for incarceration when incarceration is so heavily influenced by societal factors? One potential answer is that understanding the role of societal factors in incarceration may depend, in part, on a type of social experience that most of our participants did not have—social relationships with people who have been directly impacted by the criminal justice system. We tested this possibility by examining whether one particularly relevant type of personal experience—namely, parental incarceration—might shape people’s inferences about why people come in contact with the justice system. 

We did this by asking children whose parents either were or were not incarcerated to explain why people break the law. Participants underestimated the extent to which societal factors underlie law-breaking, the behavior that is ostensibly most directly linked with incarceration. Children of incarcerated parents, like children whose parents were not incarcerated, readily mentioned internal factors (such as “because their heart is different”) and behavioral factors (such as “because they don’t do the stuff the police tells them to do”). But, as in our previous study, neither group of children readily mentioned societal factors. So, knowing someone who is incarcerated didn’t seem to affect how children explain why people break the law.

Although societal factors, including inequality, play a critical role in determining who has contact with the criminal justice system, our participants—regardless of age or their social relationships with incarcerated individuals—rarely used these types of attributions.  Instead, they attributed such contact to individual-level causes, such as people’s bad moral character. Scientific consensus does not currently exist about why people don’t “see” the inequality that drives punitive outcomes such as incarceration. One possibility is that cultural narratives in the United States tell us that we are responsible for our circumstances—consider the idiom, “You’ve made your bed, now lie in it.”

Viewing contact with the justice system as stemming from individual-level causes is consequential. People are more likely to help and feel empathic toward others whose misfortunes seem to be caused by external versus individual-level causes. Thus, by explaining contact with the justice system solely with individual-level factors, we’re not only getting it wrong. We’re getting it wrong, and we’re also setting ourselves up to feel negatively toward people who deserve acceptance and understanding.

For Further Reading

Dunlea, J. P., & Heiphetz, L. (in press). Children's and adults' understanding of punishment and         the criminal justice system. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. [pdf]

Heiphetz, L. (2019). Moral essentialism and generosity among children and adults. Journal of        Experimental Psychology: General,148, 2077-2090. doi: 10.1037/xge0000587 [pdf]

Kraus, M. W., Rucker, J. M., & Richeson, J. A. (2017). Americans misperceive racial economic        equality. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences114, 10324-10331. doi:      10.1073/pnas.1707719114 [pdf]


James Dunlea is a third-year Ph.D. student in the Department of Psychology at Columbia University. His research largely centers around understanding how children and adults reason about punishment. You can find him on Twitter @James__Dunlea or can reach out to him via e-mail (


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Why is this blog called Character & Context?

Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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