That is the question Cynthia Najdowski explores in an interesting new article, “Stereotype Threat in Criminal Interrogations: Why Innocent Black Suspects are at Risk for Confessing Falsely,” 17 Pscyh., Pub. Pol’y & L. 562 (2011). A growing body of empirical research does indeed suggest that blacks are more likely to give a false confession than whites, but why?
Najdowski’s paper does not present any new empirical research of her own, but she does offer a new hypothesis to explain the racial disparity in confessions. Prior scholarship has attempted to account for the disparity by reference to (1) “cross-cultural differences in nonverbal communication styles, which would cause Black suspects to appear more deceptive and police investigators to put more pressure on them to confess”; and (2) “status differences in speech patterns,” leading black suspects to “react to false accusations with denials, hostility, and defensiveness, which probably solidifies investigators’s suspicions” and thereby also prompts greater pressure on the suspects to confess. (563)
To these theories, Najdowski adds a new “stereotype threat” hypothesis.
Stereotype threat is the apprehension one experiences when at risk of being perceived in light of a negative stereotype that applies to one’s group. This concern can have ironic effects on performance and behavior that inadvertently increase an individual’s likelihood of confirming the stereotype. In their seminal research on this phenomenon, Steele and Aronson demonstrated that when the stereotype that Blacks are low in intelligence is salient, Black students underperform relative to White students on standardized tests. (564)
In applying this concept of stereotype threat to interrogations, Najdowski draws on an earlier attempt to analyze the effect of stereotype threat on black witnesses:
Rand noted that Black witnesses might be aware of stereotypes related to criminality and dishonesty when facing a panel including White jurors. As such, Black witnesses might be motivated to control their demeanor to counter stereotypes and appear truthful. Rand suggested, however, that because Black witnesses try so hard to appear truthful, they might actually appear nervous and, ironically, less credible to White jurors. The same process might affect Black suspects in interrogations. Even though Black and White individuals are probably highly motivated to appear truthful in interrogations in which police investigators are evaluating them as suspects and judging whether they are guilty of crimes, Black suspects might feel extra pressure if they are concerned that investigators’ evaluations and judgments will be biased by negative stereotypes about them, particularly if they are innocent rather than guilty. (564-65)
Developing this basic idea, Najdowski explains in some detail the psychological mechanisms by which stereotype threat might cause black suspects to act suspiciously, interrogators to respond with more coercive questioning strategies, and suspects to succumb to the pressure with a false confession.
Najdowski also suggests some ways that the negative effects might be moderated. For instance, she notes,
Prior research on stereotype threat suggests that Black suspects might experience more stereotype threat when paired with a White rather than Black investigator. In support Vrij and Winkel found that Black suspects behaved most suspiciously when paired with a White investigator. (578)