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Effects of Felt Power on Emotion, Ethnic Bias, and Judgments in a Simulated Capital Trial
AuthorLivingston, Tyler N.
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Power-threat theory as originally articulated by Blalock (1967) predicts a positive relationship between the size of a minority group and perceived threat on behalf of the majority group. Latin American immigrants more than any other group arouse threat in some White Americans who perceive that these immigrants increase competition for jobs and redefine American culture (Major et al., 2018). Power is perhaps the most promising variable to eliminate negative bias by reducing perceived threat. The current study tested this proposition via an examination of legal decisions in the context of a simulated capital trial. Achieving fair sentences for a diverse population of defendants is a fundamental goal of the American jury system, yet this goal is difficult to actualize: Jurors evaluate disturbing case facts or emotional testimony (e.g., victim impact statements [VIS]) that elicit strong reactions and complicate the strict application of the law. Jurors also arrive at the jury box with preexisting attitudes (e.g., attitudes toward immigration) and personality characteristics (e.g., ethnic identification, political ideology) that might bias their decisions against Latine defendants. The current dissertation tested the hypotheses that priming jurors with felt power, compared to powerlessness, would produce fairer sentences for Latine defendants; that power would be associated with lower punitiveness; and that emotional testimony would be associated with higher punitiveness. To this end, the dissertation utilized a 2 (power: high vs. low) × 2 (defendant ethnicity: Latine vs. White) × 2 (VIS: present vs. absent) between-participants experimental design. Results from 404 mock jurors generally supported hypotheses related to power and VIS. However, defendant ethnicity and jurors’ individual differences did not function as anticipated: Lower felt power among mock jurors was associated with higher punitiveness toward the White defendant, but not the Latine defendant; higher ethnic identification among White mock jurors was marginally associated with lower punitiveness toward the Latine defendant, but not the White defendant; and greater political conservatism among White mock jurors was associated with higher punitiveness toward the White defendant, but not the Latine defendant. Findings demonstrated the potential for power to exert prosocial effects on legal decisions and for VIS to disadvantage defendants. Future research should attempt to replicate or refute observed effects of power in a variety of case types to contribute to a nuanced understanding of how power influences legal decisions. Though defendant ethnicity did not exert hypothesized effects, future research should identify contexts in which it is reasonable to predict anti-Latine legal bias and test mechanisms that can reduce such bias (e.g., power).