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February 08, 2016

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Photos of black boys young as 5 make whites think of guns: study

Feb. 8, 2016
Courtesy of the As­socia­t­ion for 
Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ence
and World Science staff

A new study sug­gests peo­ple are more likely to mistake a toy for a gun af­ter see­ing a black face than a white face—e­ven when that face be­longs to a five-year-old.

“Our find­ings sug­gest that, al­though young chil­dren are typ­ic­ally viewed as harm­less and in­no­cent, see­ing faces of five-year-old black boys ap­pears to trig­ger thoughts of guns and vi­o­lence,” said lead study au­thor An­drew Todd of the Un­ivers­ity of Io­wa.

What prompted the stu­dy, he said, was “the alarm­ing rate at which young Af­ri­can Amer­i­can­s—parti­cularly young black males—are shot and killed by po­lice in the U.S.”

Some of those incidents involve mistaking toys for guns. But the study found that cops aren’t the only ones prone to this error.

“Although such in­ci­dents have mul­ti­ple causes, one po­ten­tial con­trib­u­tor is that young black males are stereotyp­ic­ally as­so­ci­at­ed with vi­o­lence and crim­i­nal­ity,” he said. The study appears in Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ence, a jour­nal of the Wash­ing­ton, D.C.-based As­socia­t­ion for Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ence.

Pre­vi­ous re­search had found that peo­ple are quick­er at cat­e­go­rizing threat­en­ing objects af­ter see­ing black faces than af­ter see­ing white faces, which can re­sult in the misiden­ti­fica­t­ion of harm­less ob­jects as weapons. Todd and col­leagues wanted to find out wheth­er the neg­a­tive as­socia­t­ions al­so ex­tend to black chil­dren.

The re­search­ers pre­sented 64 white col­lege stu­dents with two pho­tos that flashed on a screen in quick suc­ces­sion. The stu­dents saw the first im­age—a child’s face—which they were told to ig­nore be­cause it pur­portedly just sig­naled that the sec­ond im­age was about to ap­pear. When the sec­ond im­age popped up, par­ti­ci­pants were asked to in­di­cate wheth­er it showed a gun or a toy, such as a rat­tle. The pho­tos in­clud­ed six of black five-year-old boys and six of white five-year-old boys.

The find­ings: par­ti­ci­pants tended to be quick­er at cat­e­go­rizing guns af­ter see­ing a black child’s face than af­ter see­ing a white child’s face; mis­took toys for guns more of­ten af­ter see­ing im­ages of black boys; and mis­took guns for toys more of­ten af­ter see­ing im­ages of white boys. The re­search­ers al­so con­clud­ed that au­to­mat­ic as­socia­t­ions, which can un­in­ten­tion­ally in­flu­ence be­hav­ior, drove the neg­a­tive bi­as.

In a sec­ond set of ex­pe­ri­ments, 131 white col­lege stu­dents were shown faces of both chil­dren and adults be­fore cat­e­go­rizing the sec­ond im­age as ei­ther a tool or a gun.

Again, Todd and col­leagues found that see­ing a black face, re­gard­less of wheth­er it be­longed to an adult or a child, elicited a bi­as where­by the par­ti­ci­pants cat­e­go­rized ob­jects as weapons. Par­ti­ci­pants clas­si­fied guns more quickly af­ter see­ing a black face than af­ter see­ing a white face, and were more likely to mis­tak­enly clas­si­fy the non-threat­en­ing ob­jects as guns af­ter see­ing a black face.

A fi­nal ex­pe­ri­ment re­vealed that even threat-related word­s—in­clud­ing “vi­o­len­t,” “dan­ger­ous,” “hos­tile,” and “ag­gres­sive”—were more strongly as­so­ci­at­ed with im­ages of young black boys than with im­ages of young white boys.

“One of the most per­ni­cious stereo­types of black Amer­i­cans, par­tic­u­larly black men, is that they are hos­tile and vi­o­len­t,” Todd and col­leagues wrote. “So per­va­sive are these threat-related as­socia­t­ions that they can shape even low-level as­pects of so­cial cog­ni­tion.” The re­search­ers hope later to study wheth­er the bi­as al­so ex­tends to black fe­males.


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A new study suggests people are more likely to misidentify a toy as a gun after seeing a black face than a white face—even when that face belongs to a five-year-old. “Our findings suggest that, although young children are typically viewed as harmless and innocent, seeing faces of five-year-old black boys appears to trigger thoughts of guns and violence,” said lead study author Andrew Todd of the University of Iowa. What prompted the study, he said, was “the alarming rate at which young African Americans—particularly young black males—are shot and killed by police in the U.S.” “Although such incidents have multiple causes, one potential contributor is that young black males are stereotypically associated with violence and criminality.” The research is published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Washington, D.C.-based Association for Psychological Science. Previous research had found that people are quicker at categorizing threatening stimuli after seeing black faces than after seeing white faces, which can result in the misidentification of harmless objects as weapons. Todd and colleagues wanted to find out whether the negative associations also extend to black children. The researchers presented 64 white college students with two photos that flashed on a screen in quick succession. The students saw the first image—a child’s face—which they were told to ignore because it purportedly just signaled that the second image was about to appear. When the second image popped up, participants were asked to indicate whether it showed a gun or a toy, such as a rattle. The photographs of children’s faces included six images of black five-year-old boys and six images of white five-year-old boys. The findings: participants tended to be quicker at categorizing guns after seeing a black child’s face than after seeing a white child’s face; misidentified toys as guns more often after seeing images of black boys; and they misidentified guns as toys more often after seeing images of white boys. The researchers also concluded that automatic associations, which can unintentionally influence behavior, drove the negative bias. In a second set of experiments, 131 white college students were shown faces of both children and adults before categorizing the second image as either a tool or a gun. Again, Todd and colleagues found that seeing a black face, regardless of whether it belonged to an adult or a child, elicited a bias whereby the participants categorized objects as weapons. Participants classified guns more quickly after seeing a black face than after seeing a white face, and were more likely to mistakenly classify the non-threatening objects as guns after seeing a black face. A final experiment revealed that even threat-related words—including “violent,” “dangerous,” “hostile,” and “aggressive”—were more strongly associated with images of young black boys than with images of young white boys. “One of the most pernicious stereotypes of black Americans, particularly black men, is that they are hostile and violent,” Todd and colleagues wrote. “So pervasive are these threat-related associations that they can shape even low-level aspects of social cognition.” The researchers also hope to study whether the bias also extends to black females.