July 19, 2015

How your prejudices can dictate your actions in a crisis

The story below gets a lot of things right but the mumbo-jumbo about neurology is a red herring that just distracts from the central point, helping the article to end up as a classic bit of Leftist obfuscation and evasion of the real problem.

But one thing they do get right is that stereotypes are flexible and can be changed.  See the last paragraph below.   I concluded the same from my survey of the research evidence about stereotypes.  See here and here.

But they fail to follow through on the logic of that.  If stereotypes are inherently flexible, why are some stereotypes persistent?  Why do people persist in expecting blacks to be  aggressive, dangerous and criminal?  As Jesse Jackson once showed, even blacks expect that of other blacks.

It wouldn't be that the stereotypes are accurate, would it?  It wouldn't be that many blacks, particulaly young males, REALLY ARE  aggressive, dangerous and criminal, would it?

Black adult males are often aggressive and unco-operative towards police so is it surprising that a cop might be alert for aggression from a black adult male? And if the black is walking towards the cop holding a gun, what is the cop supposed to do?  He's not a martyr.  His first duty is to stay alive and his experience suggests that he might have only seconds to ensure that.

It is regrettable that blacks generate such stereotypes in others but it is their own doing.  If by some miracle blacks became as law-abiding as (say) the Chinese, the stereotype would change.

UPON arriving at the park in Cleveland, Ohio, where Tamir Rice was playing, it took less than 2 seconds for police officer Timothy Loehmann to emerge from his car and shoot the boy, fatally, in the abdomen.

How was it possible for a policeman responding to a call about a person who was “black, male and armed” to decide so quickly that someone should be killed? Events unfolded too quickly for careful thought, so Loehmann’s actions were probably driven by automatic, perhaps even unconscious, processes.

To begin to understand actions at this timescale, it helps to consider how they could play out in the brain. This is where psychologists who study the neural and cognitive processes underlying prejudice, stereotypes and discrimination come in. By looking at the inner workings of the brain, we can examine the (often unconscious) prejudices that nearly all of us have. And we can begin to trace the split-second processes at work when a police officer sees a suspect and then initiates an action – to shoot or not shoot.

Stereotypes can profoundly shape how we see and act toward racial minorities, and studies of the neural mechanisms involved shed light on just how this happens (Nature Reviews Neuroscience, vol 15, p 670). We know from decades of social psychology research that, for white Americans, “black”, “male” and “armed” are attributes that activate a network of information forming a stereotype and stored in the mind. Neuroscience is helping us to understand how this happens, and how a stereotype can influence our perceptions and actions.

Concepts about people and groups are stored in the brain’s temporal lobes. Through these networks, the term “black male” calls up concepts of hostility, threat and crime in the minds of many Americans. This stereotype information then feeds into the medial frontal cortex toward the front of the brain, where it is integrated into a first impression of the person. This all happens in a moment. In the case of police officers responding to a call, that moment is when they first hear a description from their dispatcher.

The medial frontal cortex is also involved when we take another person’s perspective in order to understand their thoughts and motives. However, research reveals a reduction in this region’s pattern of activity when we think about people from lower status groups. Given that African Americans are viewed this way, this suggests they are seen more as objects than as people. These factors – stereotyping and dehumanisation – conspire to produce the impression that someone is dangerous and that their life is not particularly worthy.

As emotions run high, brain structures that respond rapidly to threats, such as the amygdala, activate and prepare the body for a fight-or-flight response. The amygdala plays a critical role when snap judgements are made in response to threat. My research has shown that people’s prejudices are amplified when they feel threatened, and this is thought to be due to heightened amygdala activity. Importantly, the impact of racial bias on the amygdala appears to reflect associations learned from the surrounding culture rather than our personal beliefs. This means that the amygdala response to black people is not specific to bigots; it occurs for most Americans, even if they reject racial prejudice.

Let’s consider the Rice case. Police were dispatched to the park after a 911 caller reported a “guy with a pistol… he’s pointing it at everybody”. The caller also noted, “it’s probably fake” and “he’s probably a juvenile” – details reportedly not conveyed to the officers. And, of course, Rice was black. This was one of the details the dispatcher who took the 911 call sought to establish, insistently. Skin colour is an important identifier, of course, but “black” also suggests a profile. To the dispatcher, race seemed to be critical for constructing the scene: black, male, gun.

Rice was indeed playing with a fake gun – a replica semi-automatic – and he was, indeed, a juvenile. But although Rice was just 12, he was already 5 foot 7 inches (1.7 metres) tall and weighed 195 pounds (89 kilograms). When police approached, they probably saw what they were expecting – an armed adult male in an active shooter situation. Rice was sitting alone at a picnic table. As the car pulled up, he rose and began to walk towards it.

All of our research suggests that at such a moment, the police officer’s brain is primed to see a black criminal with a gun, prepared to shoot, even though it would be difficult to accurately make out the weapon in this time frame. We know from eye-tracking studies that shooting decisions – particularly when the suspect is black – are often made before the eye can fully process the object in the suspect’s hand. In these ways, stereotypes and expectations influence what the perceiver thinks they see.

Rice reportedly reached toward his waistband where the replica gun was tucked. Without hesitation, the officer fired two rounds.

Was the killing of Tamir Rice, like the deaths of many other black men at the hands of police, driven by racial prejudice? Overwhelming evidence from experimental psychology points to “yes”. But whose prejudice? Was it the officer who made the snap decision to shoot Rice? The dispatcher, who seemingly primed the officer to care more about Rice’s race, rather than his age or the notion that the gun was fake? A society that stereotypes young black men as criminals? Or a social system that perpetuates inequality along racial lines?

The answer is probably “all of the above”, but with an emphasis on culture and social systems. Unfortunately, these are the most difficult to change. So while systemic change may be the ultimate goal, interventions to reduce prejudice at the personal level may be most effective in the short term.

How could this tragedy have turned out differently? From studies, we know that it is difficult to control a non-conscious bias “in the moment”. The most promising approach, I believe, is through proactive control, which involves anticipating a potential problem and having a planned response. In the lab, we have found that such interventions can eliminate racial bias in shooting decisions, and we are beginning to investigate whether people can, with training, see greater humanity in those of other ethnic backgrounds.

You might think none of this applies to you, but you would be wrong. Virtually everyone has unconscious racial biases, in part because the mind has a natural tendency to categorise people and also because our culture exposes us to common caricatures about race.

Our research shows that even avowed egalitarians show bias in their behaviour when they have to make a snap judgement. These biases are also not limited to race but exist for almost any attribute, be it gender, nationality, sexual orientation or hair colour, and they constantly shape our judgements. Bias comes from our culture, it seeps into our brains, and unless we control it, it is expressed in our actions.

Are these biases hardwired? Far from it; with every new thing you learn, your brain changes. This means that our prejudices can change. A neuroscience approach is letting us begin to tease apart the different components behind a split-second prejudiced response, first to understand it, and then, perhaps, to find ways to change it.


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