A new study in the Journal of Experimental Criminology finds in an experiment measuring the reactions of participants to various threatening situations that people tended to pull the trigger faster when confronted by armed white suspects. This sounds counterintuitive to most people (including me). A 2001 Bureau of Justice Statistics report (latest available) analyzed justifiable homicides and noted:
Felons justifiably killed by police represent a tiny fraction of the total population. Of the 183 million whites in 1998, police killed 225; of the 27 million blacks, police killed 127. While the rate (per million population) at which blacks were killed by police in 1998 was about 4 times that of whites, the difference used to be much wider: the black rate in 1978 was 8 times the white rate.
The BJS study also found that black suspects were also as likely to shoot at police as be shot at.
In the deadly force experiments participants (85 percent white) face a life-sized HD video screen on which the stance, clothing, hand motions, objects being held, and race of suspects can all be modified. The subjects are hooked up to brain wave measuring devices and can respond using a laser gun. The press materials from Washington State University detailing the results report:
Participants in an innovative Washington State University study of deadly force were more likely to feel threatened in scenarios involving black people. But when it came time to shoot, participants were biased in favor of black suspects, taking longer to pull the trigger against them than against armed white or Hispanic suspects...[WSU researcher Lois] James’ study is a follow-up to one in which she found active police officers, military personnel and the general public took longer to shoot black suspects than white or Hispanic suspects. Participants were also more likely to shoot unarmed white suspects than black or Hispanic ones and more likely to fail to fire at armed black suspects.
“In other words,” wrote James and her co-authors, “there was significant bias favoring blacks where decisions to shoot were concerned.”
When confronted by an armed white person, participants took an average of 1.37 seconds to fire back. Confronted by an armed black person, they took 1.61 seconds to fire and were less likely to fire in error. The 240-millisecond* difference may seem small, but it’s enough to be fatal in a shooting.
This hesitation occurred even though the electroencephalograph generally identified brain wave patterns indicating significantly greater threat responses against black suspects than white or Hispanic suspects. So then why the difference?
James and her team speculate:
This behavioral ‘counter-bias’ might be rooted in people’s concerns about the social and legal consequences of shooting a member of a historically oppressed racial or ethnic group.
COMMENT: That should say "shooting" a member of a historically (and currently) oppressed racial group. No one actually got shot during this experiment -- because it was an experiment, in a laboratory, without real guns, or real criminals. That EEG finding is pretty interesting, isn't it? Armed black suspects seemed to make the "shooters" more afraid than armed white or Hispanic suspects. (I haven't read the original article, but I'm willing to bet that the black "shooters" were also more afraid of the armed black suspects.) So why did the "shooters" hold their fire for 240 milliseconds longer? Maybe because they figured out the hypothesis of the study and didn't want the experimenters to think that they were racist. BUT THE EEG FINDINGS SUGGEST THAT IN THE REAL WORLD THEY WOULD HAVE FIRED FASTER IN ORDER TO SAVE THEIR LIVES.
The term to know here is DEMAND CHARACTERISTICS (or DEMAND EFFECTS). Put simply, people don't always behave the same way when they are participating in an experiment as when they are out in the real world. Some folks try to please the experimenter and get him or her the expected results. For instance, if you are given a survey that clearly measures depression symptoms, and then the experimenter has you meditate for 30 minutes, you might, when given the same depression survey to complete a second time, figure that the study has something to do with the effects of meditation on depression. You want to be a good guy, so you give yourself lower scores (less depression) the second time around. Alternately, some people (particularly children) might behave in ways that they would not otherwise, since there are "no rules" in a psychology experiment (unlike at home or in school). See Bandura's Bobo the Fighting Clown study for an example of kids behaving according to demand effects.