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People expect symmetry in social relationships. If you feel friendly toward someone, you likely expect that they feel friendly toward you, too. Chicago Booth’s Anuj K. Shah and Penn State postdoctoral scholar Michael LaForest find that this assumption applies to anonymity as well: when we learn about a stranger, we behave as though they know us better as well. This psychological phenomenon is so potent, they find, that it can even help to deter crime.
So this work actually came out of some qualitative interviews that we were doing with people who had been previously involved in the justice system. And in particular, some folks who had been incarcerated previously. And in those qualitative interviews, one of the questions that we asked was: If there were times when you thought about going forward with an offense and you stopped, what might have made you stop? And we had a large range of answers that came out of it, but one somewhat common response that came out of it was people would say, “Well, if I know the officers in a neighborhood, then I’m less likely to go forward with something that might be an offense or might be a crime.”
And there’s something kind of deep psychological, a deep psychological insight there, which is they weren’t just saying that it’s enough to see any other officer. Any other officer might not really know what I’m up to, but rather what they were saying is, when I know more about an officer, it feels like they might be more attuned to my actions. And that’s not just something that’s about how people perceive officers or think through other aspects of the criminal-justice system, that relates to how people see others more generally.
We generally tend to feel that if we know others, then they must know us as well. And you know, this assumption is generally true. It usually is the case that if I know you, you know me. If I see you as a friend, you probably see me as a friend as well. But in this work, we’re asking a question of whether people might sometimes overgeneralize that assumption and think that just because I know something about you, you might be likely to know something about me as well, and that has implications for how people perceive social connections. But we also examine how it affects how people perceive police officers as well.
We actually collect a couple of different types of data for this project, because we’re interested in both the general psychological question as well as how it might be applied to community policing. We start with a series of lab experiments, where we’re not asking anything about how people perceive police officers, but really just about how people might perceive strangers, as it were.
And in these lab experiments, we tell people that they’re gonna be participating with another person, a stranger, and we allow them to believe that they’ve been connected to this stranger through an online platform. Now there’s some deception involved here because there is no other person, but rather we’re simulating that other person and how that person might be responding to the participants. And in these studies, your big experimental manipulation or conditions are whether we show participants information about their partner, as it were.
So in one study, for example, we ask people to answer a few different basic demographics questions, multiple-choice demographics questions like: What’s your marital status? What’s your employment status? What type of area do you live in? And we either show them their partner’s responses or we don’t. And these responses are just randomly generated because there is no other person.
And then we ask participants how much they feel like their partner already knows them. And in the conditions where participants see information about their partner, they think their partner knows more about them even though nothing additional has been shared with participants. We also find that when participants have more information about their partners that they think their partners would be better at detecting whether they told a lie, and that actually deters dishonesty in these lab experiments.
So from the lab experiments we get some tests of this general just psychological idea that when we know more about others, we assume they know more about us. And that affects how we think and act around those folks that we know more about, even when it’s not necessarily the case they know more about us.
So with those lab experiments, we then go back to the context that we started with about how people perceive officers in their neighborhood. And you know, in lots of police departments there’s a push toward thinking about different community-policing strategies, where the goal is for officers to start up conversations with community members. The idea being that this would hopefully make policing more responsive to the concerns in the community.
One implication of or effect of community policing is that people might get to know more about the officers in their neighborhood as well. But this isn’t always a deliberate part of the strategy. So in a field experiment, we actually randomly assigned different public-housing developments in New York City to either receive information about their community police officers or to not receive information about their community police officers.
So one set of housing developments we don’t do anything at all. It’s business as usual. But for another set of housing developments, we asked officers to fill out a survey where they pick about three to five questions about themselves. What are their favorite hobbies? What’s their favorite sports team? How long have they been a police officer? And we turn those little factoids into a business card that has their contact information but also those three facts about the officer. And we also create a letter on behalf of the officer that elaborates on those three facts. We send those letters and the outreach cards to every housing unit in those public-housing developments that have been assigned to our experimental or treatment condition.
And we sent these over about three waves between November 2017 and January 2018. And then a few weeks after we’re done sending out this information about the police officers, we did a survey where we asked residents in both the control and treatment developments about a range of different perceptions of the officers.
For residents who received that information about their neighborhood officers, they thought that officers were more likely to know if they did something illegal. So again, it parallels what we found in the lab where when people have more information about others, in this case police officers, they think officers are more likely to be attuned to their actions as well. And we find that this actually corresponds to about a 5–7 percent reduction in crimes on campus and near campus around the public-housing developments in the first three months. So it’s a short-lived effect, but given how light touch the intervention is, it suggests that there is some effect of just knowing more about your neighborhood officers.
One way to look at this field experiment is that it’s really just a proof of concept, but I wouldn’t look at it as a ready-to-go intervention that, look, this is a small reform in the context of where larger reforms are discussed and often needed in different police departments. And merely giving people business cards that have officer information might not be the best way to implement this or the most effective way to implement this. But it does suggest that to the extent we can take this general insight of allowing people to learn more about their neighborhood officers and integrate that more deeply into community-policing initiatives, that it could have some benefit in the long run because it might be reducing crime without actually increasing fraught community member–police officer interactions.
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