May 21, 2001 St. Louis, May 16, 2001 -- Recent police shootings of unarmed blacks have spurred racial tensions and fueled a raging debate over such issues as racial profiling and harassment. While no one knows what lies behind a police officer's split-second decision to fire at a fleeing suspect, a new study from Washington University in St. Louis suggests that race could well be a significant factor in such decisions.
"Although nearly everyone would agree that stereotypes influence our thoughts about other people, it is surprising to most people that the mere presence of a black person's face can cause people to misperceive an object as a weapon," said Keith Payne, study author and a doctoral student at Washington University.
Scheduled for publication in the August issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the study investigates the influence of racial cues on the perceptual identification of weapons.
Participants were presented with an array of images that included photos of blacks and whites and either tools or weapons. When shown a series of photos showing black faces, participants were much faster to identify later images of weapons. Those primed with a selection of white faces were faster to identify non-threatening images, such as tools. And, when the experiment was speeded up to require more rapid responses, participants misidentified tools as guns more often when primed with a black face than when primed with a white face.
"The fact that this effect is "automatic" in the sense that people cannot "turn it off" even when they try is striking and disturbing," Payne said.
Participants in the study were all students ages 19-24 attending a private university in the Midwest. Most of the study participants were white; none were black.
"When we hear about mistaken police shootings of unarmed blacks, it's easy to jump to the conclusion that the shooter was some sort of raging bigot," Payne said. "This study is surprising because it shows that racial biases are difficult to control even among relatively well educated, open-minded and liberal college students."
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