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.
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.
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.

If you are interested in learning about your own implicit biases you can take the Implicit Association Test (IAT) at Project Implicit.