Surprised elaboration: When White men get longer sentences

J Pers Soc Psychol. 2022 Nov;123(5):941-956. doi: 10.1037/pspa0000297. Epub 2022 Feb 28.


We present a new consequence of stereotypes: they affect the length of communications. People say more about events that violate common stereotypes than those that confirm them, a phenomenon we dub surprised elaboration. Across two public data sets, government officials wrote longer reports when negative events befell White people (stereotype-inconsistent) than when the same events befell Black or Hispanic people (stereotype-consistent). Officers authored longer missing child reports of White (vs. Black or Hispanic) children (Study 1a), and medical examiners wrote longer reports of unidentified White (vs. Black or Hispanic) bodies (Study 1b). In follow-up experiments, communicators found stereotype-inconsistent events more surprising and this prompted them to elaborate (Study 2). Surprised elaboration occurred for negative events (i.e., crimes, misdemeanors) and also positive ones (i.e., weddings; Study 3). We found that surprised elaboration has policy implications. Observers preferred to funnel government and media resources toward White victims, since their case reports were longer, even when longer reports were not more informative (Studies 4-6). Together, these studies introduce surprised elaboration, a new theoretical phenomenon with implications for public policy. (PsycInfo Database Record (c) 2022 APA, all rights reserved).

MeSH terms

  • Child
  • Communication*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Public Policy
  • Stereotyping*