Implicit Egoism in Sentencing Decisions: First Letter Name Effects with Randomly Assigned Defendants

Article in a working paper series

Daniel L. Chen and J.J. Prescott, "Implicit Egoism in Sentencing Decisions: First Letter Name Effects with Randomly Assigned Defendants", IAST working paper, n. 16-56, October 2016.[Full text]


Implicit egotism—in particular, positive unconscious associations that individuals have with others who share their names or first initials—is a mainstay of modern psychology textbooks, but the interpretation of prior field studies has recently come under criticism for lack of adequate control, reverse causality, and ethnic heterogeneity. Using unique data from the New Orleans District Attorney’s Office on 48,988 defendants that were randomly assigned to judges from 1988-1999, we identify the causal effect of matching first initials. In contrast to positive affect, we find that judges assign 8% longer sentences on average (about two-three months) when they match on first initials. The effect is robust to controls and removal of outliers. No effect is found for second-letter matches, last-letter matches, or randomly reassigned names. The effects are somewhat larger for defendants categorized as Negroes by the New Orleans District Attorney’s Office, which could be due to sampling variation or due to behavioral biases playing a stronger role in evaluations when decision makers are nearly indifferent. The effects are also somewhat larger for judges categorized as Whites. The negative effect of sharing first initials explains 0.03% of variation. Finally, we interpret the negative behavioral effect as threatened egotism, in which individuals motivated to manage self-image (implicit egoism) create social distance from negatively- valenced targets perceived to be associated with the self.

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