This blog post was originally published on Character & Context, the blog of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology. You can access it at: http://www.spsp.org/news-center/blog/valla-rivolta-biases
News about Black people being shot by police officers, usually White officers, seems like a near daily occurrence. The understandable protests that occur after such events often focus on the racial prejudice that White police officers seem to hold toward Black people.
What if this serious social problem is partly based on automatic, unintended cognitive processes? In other words, to what degree is this social problem rooted in implicit bias? The term “implicit bias” refers to attitudes, stereotypes, or associations that we are not aware of but which can influence our judgments and actions.
Many researchers have studied implicit bias – often implicit racial or ethnic bias. Is it possible that simply seeing a Black person rather than a White person makes people more likely to interpret actions as violent or makes us more likely to behave violently ourselves? Research suggests that the answer is “yes.” For example, research shows that people judge an action as more violent when it is performed by a Black person than when the same action is performed by a White person. A great deal of research also shows that White people associate negative words and traits with Black names or faces more quickly than they associate negative words and traits with White names or faces.
Do these implicit anti-Black biases apply only to White people, or might many Black people also show evidence of such unconscious biases? Because most research on implicit bias has focused on White people, this is hard to know. So, in our recent research, we asked Black and White people to decide if an object, such as a gun or a teddy bear, was dangerous or non-dangerous after they saw – for a very brief period – the face of a Black person, the face a White person, or a “scrambled face” that was made up of unrecognizable facial feature (which served as the baseline comparison for our experiment). A typical example of each the three types of faces appears below:
Interestingly, we found that people, regardless of their own race, identified a dangerous object more quickly after seeing a Black face than after seeing a scrambled face. There was a similar, but much weaker, tendency for both Black and White participants to identify objects more quickly after seeing a Black face than a White face. This finding suggests that both Black and White people may be subject to at least some implicit racial biases.
If these implicit racial biases apply to the behavior of both Black and White police officers, this suggests that the problem of unnecessary force against Black Americans may not be limited to White officers. On the other hand, if Black officers were to show less racial bias than White officers in the real world, this would raise many questions. Are Black officers better able to control their implicit biases? Or is it possible, as some have suggested, that measures of implicit bias tell us more about the culture in which they are measured than they do about the beliefs of any specific person?
Because it is difficult to study implicit bias in the field, the answers to these questions are not easy to come by. Can we say that the police officers who have been videotaped shooting unarmed Black men did so because of implicit bias? We do not know because no one has measured their implicit biases.
Having said all this, recent research does suggest that implicit racial biases seem to operate in the field. A study by Voigt and colleagues used recordings from police body cameras to analyze more than 400 real interactions between police officers and Black versus White pedestrians. As the authors put it “officers speak with consistently less respect toward black versus white community members, even after controlling for the race of the officer, the severity of the infraction, the location of the stop, and the outcome of the stop.”
This clever field study, like many laboratory studies of implicit bias, suggests that we do not treat people from different ethnicities the same in our everyday interactions. In light of our own findings, we should begin to ask whether such implicit racial biases sometimes exist irrespective of our own ethnicity. All in all, research on implicit biases raises important questions about whether our physical features automatically affect the way we are treated by others and, if so, how and why this automatic occurs. Future research should focus on whether there are any good ways to reduce the operation of such automatic racial biases.
For Further Reading:
Valla, L. G., Bossi, F., Calì, R., Fox, V., Ali, S. I., & Rivolta, D. (2018). Not Only Whites: Racial Priming Effect for Black Faces in Black People. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 40(4), 195-200.
Voigt, R., Camp, N.P., Prabhakaran, V., Hamilton, W.L., Hetey, R.C., Griffiths, C.M., Jurgens, D., Jurafsky, D., & Eberhardt, J.L. (2017). Racial disparities in police language. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 114 (25) 6521-6526; DOI:10.1073/pnas.1702413114
Luca Guido Valla is a Ph.D. candidate in Cognitive Science at the University of Malta, Malta.
Davide Rivolta is Associate Professor of Psychobiology and Physiological Psychology at the University of Bari Aldo Moro, Italy.