NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH
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Racial Bias and In-group Bias in Judicial Decisions: Evidence from Virtual Reality Courtrooms

Samantha Bielen, Wim Marneffe, Naci H. Mocan

NBER Working Paper No. 25355
Issued in December 2018
NBER Program(s):Health Economics, Law and Economics, Labor Studies, Public Economics

We shot videos of criminal trials using 3D Virtual Reality (VR) technology, prosecuted by actual prosecutors and defended by actual defense attorneys in an actual courtroom. This is the first paper that utilizes VR technology in a non-computer animated setting, which allows us to replace white defendants in the courtroom with individuals who have Middle Eastern or North African descent in a real-life environment. We alter only the race of the defendants in these trials, holding all activity in the courtroom constant (http://proficient.ninja/splitscreen/). Law students, economics students and practicing lawyers are randomly assigned to watch with VR headsets, from the view point of the judge, the trials that differed only in defendants’ skin color. Background information obtained from the evaluators allowed us to identify their cultural heritage. Evaluators made decisions on guilt/innocence in these burglary and assault cases, as well as prison sentence length and fine in accordance with the guidelines provided by the relevant law. There is suggestive evidence of negative in-group bias in conviction decisions where evaluators are harsher against defendants of their own race. There is, however, significant overall racial bias in conviction decisions against minorities. In the sentencing phase, we find in-group favoritism in prison times and fines, driven by white evaluators. This translates into overall racial bias against minority defendants in prison sentences and fines. We find only scant evidence that the concerns of the evaluators about terrorism, about immigration, or their trust in the judiciary or the police have an impact on their judicial decisions, suggesting that the source of the bias may be deep-rooted. Merging a small sample of judges and prosecutors with the sample of lawyers provides very similar results as those obtained from the analysis of lawyers.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w25355

 
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