In Brief

University of Washington researchers have found that an automatic bias may be to blame for police officers' tendency to more often mistakenly shoot at unarmed African-American men who do not pose a threat than at unarmed white men, as noted in recent media reports.

Using a virtual reality program, researchers Anthony Greenwald, PhD, Hunter Hoffman, PhD, and doctoral student Mark Oakes found that participants were more likely to mistakenly identify such objects as cameras or flashlights as guns when they were held by blacks, as opposed to whites. The findings were reported in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (Vol. 39, No. 4).

Researchers tested 106 college students, placing them in the role of a virtual police officer watching people--both black and white--pop out from behind a large trash bin. Participants were given less than a second to use the computer to "shoot" at criminals with guns, flash safety signals to fellow officers or give no response to citizens who held harmless objects.

"The time pressure was our way of simulating the stress and pressure of the situation" police officers sometimes face, Greenwald says.

The researchers found that participants mistakenly shot at unarmed blacks who did not pose a threat 35 percent of the time, whereas unarmed whites were mistakenly shot at only 26 percent of the time. One possible explanation may be that the participants' attention focused on the person's race, not on what the person was holding, according to the researchers.

"The findings reveal an automatic stereotype that associate blacks more with weapons and danger than whites," Greenwald explains.

These findings build on previous studies that also show an unconscious race bias, Greenwald says, and hold implications for combating such biases.

"It's not very likely that people will rapidly and voluntarily rid themselves of automatic reactions to race," he says. "But what we can do is recognize the existence of these biases and then take steps to limit the damage that may be caused by them."