In Brief

Subconscious biases can influence visual processing--so much so that simply viewing a black man's face increases the speed with which some people identify a fuzzy picture as a gun, according to research in the December issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Vol. 87, No. 6). The researchers also showed that these biases work bidirectionally: Viewing a gun makes people--in this case white men--later pay more attention to black male faces.

In the study, Jennifer Eberhardt, PhD, a psychology professor at Stanford University, and her colleagues tested 41 white male college students. First, the researchers flashed a picture of a white male face, a black male face or an abstract shape for 30 milliseconds--too short a time for the participants to consciously realize what they had seen.

Then, the participants watched a short clip of a picture that began as an unidentifiable blur but, over the course of 41 picture frames, gradually became clearer and emerged as a picture of a gun. The participants signaled when they could identify the picture.

Participants who had seen the black face identified the gun significantly more quickly than those who previously viewed the abstract shape or the white face--taking on average 19.26 frames, 23.58 frames and 24.97 frames, respectively.

In a second experiment, the researchers demonstrated that this effect works bidirectionally: Not only do pictures of black male faces prime people to quickly notice a gun, but also images of crime-relevant objects make people pay more attention to black male faces.

This finding has direct relevance to racial profiling, Eberhardt says, because simply thinking of crime may prepare viewers to selectively notice black people present in the environment.

Because of this connection, the researchers conducted a follow-up study with police officers as participants. They found that police officers were more likely to look at a black face after being primed to think of crime, and that the officers were likely to misremember the face as more stereotypically black than it actually was. These findings suggest that visual processes both reflect and magnify associations between social groups and concepts, Eberhardt says.

She adds that she hopes studies such as hers may eventually lead to ways to reduce these deep-seated biases.