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Study Shows Racial Bias May Affect Decision To Shoot At Targets

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Are you racist? According to a study, split-second decisions involving shooting at targets will still be colored by racial bias, whether the shooter realizes his or her racist tendencies or not.

In a study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Yara Mekawi and Konrad Bresin detailed the results of a meta-analysis they carried out on 42 studies regarding trigger bias to determine if race has a role in the likelihood that a target will be shot.

Mekawi said that they discovered two things: first, people were faster in shooting black targets with guns compared to white targets with guns, and, second, people were generally likelier to be trigger-happy when encountering black targets than white ones.

The studies the researchers analyzed all involved first-person shooter tasks. Participants were informed police officers commonly find themselves in high-stress situations where shooting decisions have to be made quickly. They were then presented with images as targets featuring different races either holding guns or neutral objects, such as cellphones or soda cans. If they see a target with a gun, the participants were instructed to make a decision whether to shoot or not. They had less than a second to make that decision.

One of the theories that try to explain the presence of racial bias in shooting decisions states that people view black targets as "stereotype-consistent," meaning they are seeing something expected. When expectations meet what is in front of them, people react according to what the stereotype dictates.

Another theory proposes that the quicker decision to shoot black targets is a threatened response. It is possible that the participants perceived black targets as more threatening and so exhibited shooting behavior tinged with self-preservation.

"What this highlights is that even though a person might say [they aren't racist or prejudiced], it doesn't necessarily mean that race doesn't influence their split-second decisions," said Mekawi.

According to the researchers, the results of the study provided crucial insight into the psychology of shootings where decisions may have been made based on race. By knowing that racial bias exists—despite what individuals may believe of themselves—those with authority can influence interventions such as training police officers, which can prevent the loss of life of ethnic and racial minorities.

Photo: Geoffrey Fairchild | Flickr

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