Recent shootings in Missouri, Utah, and South Carolina keep us asking how racial bias affects the use of deadly force by the police. How and why does differential treatment by race continue to persist in law enforcement? Part of the answer has to do with the culture and history of policing (see our pervious post Reflecting on Ferguson). Another part involves what psychologists call “implicit biases.” Implicit biases are the unconscious ways in which people treat others differently. Studies of implicit bias have consistently shown that people tend to prefer white to African-American, young to old, and heterosexual to gay. Many social scientists conclude these implicit biases reflect societal biases, because continuous exposure to these assumptions in media and daily interactions leads to biased cognitive associations like “white-innocent” or “black-criminal.”
Implicit biases are most clearly exposed when people are forced to make quick decisions, like when an officer is deciding to shoot or holster their weapon.
- Jennifer L. Eberhardt, Phillip Atiba Goff, Valerie J. Purdie, and Paul G. Davies. 2004. “Seeing Black: Race, Crime, and Visual Processing.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 87(6): 876-893.
- Kristin A. Lane, Jerry Kang, and Mahzarin R. Banaji. 2007. “Implicit Social Cognition.” Annual Review of Law and Social Science 3: 427-51
Psychologists study the shoot/don’t shoot scenario with video game simulations that require civilians and police to make decisions about a person removing an object (either a weapon or non-weapon) from their pocket. Generally, police make better decisions than civilians, but a racial bias still persists.
- Joshua Correll, Bernadette Park, Charles M. Judd, and Bernd Wittenbrink. 2007. “The Influence of Stereotypes on Decisions to Shoot.” European Journal of Social Psychology 37(6): 1102-1117.
- Debbie S. Ma, Joshua Correll, Bernd Wittenbrink, Yoav Bar-Anan, N. Sriram & Brian A. Nosek. 2013. “When Fatigue Turns Deadly: The Association Between Fatigue and Racial Bias in the Decision to Shoot.“ Basic and Applied Social Psychology 35(6): 515-524
Social scientists have several suggestions on how to reduce biases in law enforcement, including increasing the diversity of police forces and management, removing stereotypic images from the workplace, and requiring training to develop counter-stereotypic cognition.
- Christine Jolls and Cass R. Sunstein. 2006. “The law of Implicit Bias.” California Law Review 94(4): 969-996.
- Jerry Kang et al. 2012. “Implicit Bias in the Courtroom.” UCLA Law Review 59(5): 1124-1186.
- Donald Tomaskovic-Devey and Patricia Warren. 2009. “Explaining and Eliminating Racial Profiling.” Contexts.
If you are interested in learning about your own implicit biases you can take the Implicit Association Test (IAT) at Project Implicit.