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Shooters Quicker To Pull Trigger When Target Is Black, Study Finds

Aug 29, 2015
Originally published on September 3, 2015 10:33 am

Are most people more likely to pull the trigger of a gun if the person they're shooting at is black?

A new meta-analysis set out to answer that question. Yara Mekawi of the University of Illinois and her co-author, Konrad Bresin, drew together findings from 42 different studies on trigger bias to examine whether race affects how likely a target is to be shot.

"What we found is that it does," Mekawi tells NPR's Arun Rath. "In our study we found two main things: First, people were quicker to shoot black targets with a gun, relative to white targets with a gun. And ... people were more trigger-happy when shooting black targets compared to shooting white targets."

That is, shooters weren't just faster to fire at black targets; they were also more likely to fire at a black target.


Interview Highlights

On the kinds of studies they were analyzing

Our inclusion criteria was pretty much that they used what's called a first-person shooter task. ... Participants are generally told that police officers are often put in high-stress situations where they have to make very quick shooting decisions.

And so they are presented with images of targets from various races that either have a gun or have some kind of neutral object. So, sometimes it's a soda can; other times it's a cellphone. And what they're told is, to make the decision to shoot when they see a target with a gun.

They are given less than a [second] to respond, and if they don't respond quickly enough, they get a little error message saying, "Please make the decision faster."

On an additional finding: a correlation between such bias and permissive gun laws

[We] coded the cities in which the data was collected by how permissive the gun laws were. And we used the Brady Law campaign, which gives basically states a score ... being very permissive, this means that, you know, they didn't require background checks in the same way that other, more strict states might or have other limitations on who's allowed to purchase a gun. ...

Basically, what we found was that in states that had relatively permissive gun laws, the shooting threshold for black targets was lower than for white targets.

On theories for why this bias was evident

One theory states, essentially, that when people view images of black targets with a gun, it's what's called "stereotype-consistent," which means that it's something that you expect. And so people typically respond to things more quickly when they're congruent, when they make sense to be together. So that's one theory.

Another theory is that it could be something to do with threat. It could be that individuals perceive black targets as being more threatening. And so they inhibit their shooting behavior less because they're more threatened. So you can think of it as kind of a threatened response.

On the implications for law enforcement

I think, generally speaking, what this highlights is that even though a person might say "I'm not racist" or "I'm not prejudiced," it doesn't necessarily mean that race doesn't influence their split-second decisions.

One implication could be that there should be education about the fact that these biases exist and that they could be outside of one's control. So even if you think that you're not prejudiced, you're not biased, that doesn't necessarily mean that that's true in terms of split-second decisions that you might make in the real world.

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

Are most people more likely to pull the trigger of a gun if the person they're shooting at is black? A new study takes on that question. Yara Mekawi of the University of Illinois is one of the co-authors of the study. Yara, welcome to the program.

YARA MEKAWI: Thank you.

RATH: So, Yara, does race affect whether a target is more or less likely to be shot?

MEKAWI: Well, what we found is that it does. And so in our study, we found two main things. So first, people were quicker to shoot black targets with a gun, relative to white targets with a gun. And the other thing that we found was that people were more trigger-happy when shooting black targets compared to white targets. So what that means is that they had a bias or a tendency to shoot black targets more than white targets.

RATH: Your study is a meta-analysis, meaning you took the results from dozens of studies to come up with your analysis. What kind of studies were you analyzing? Were these done in a lab? What kind of conditions?

MEKAWI: Yeah, they were all conducted in the lab. And so our inclusion criteria was pretty much that they used what's called a first-person shooter task. And kind of how the task generally works is that participants are told that police officers are often put in high-stress situations where they have to make very quick shooting decisions. And so they are presented with images of targets from various races, that either have a gun or they have some kind of neutral object - so sometimes it's a soda can, other times it's something like a cell phone. And what they're told is to make the decision to shoot when they see a target with a gun. And so they are given less than a millisecond to respond, and if they don't respond quickly enough, they get a little error message saying, please make the decision faster. And that was our main inclusion criteria, it was just that the study had to include that task. They had to report data from that task. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio of this story, our guest incorrectly says that participants in the studies had "less than a millisecond to respond." In fact, they had less than a second.]

RATH: Now you also found a correlation between the bias and states with more permissive gun laws. Could you explain that?

MEKAWI: So that was one of our surprising findings. And so what we did was we basically coded the cities in which the data was collected by how permissive the gun laws were. And we used the Brady Law Campaign, which gives basically states a score of either being very permissive, so this means that, you know, they don't require background checks in the same way that other more strict states might or have other kinds of limitations on who's allowed to purchase a gun. And basically what we found was that in states with relatively permissive gun laws, the shooting threshold for black targets was lower than for white targets.

RATH: The simple question that seems odd to ask maybe - but why do you think you observed this bias?

MEKAWI: Well, there's lots of different theories. A couple of them - so one theory states essentially that when people view images of black targets with a gun, it's what called stereotype consistent, which means that it's something that you expect, and so people typically respond to things more quickly when they're congruent - when they make sense to be together. So that's one theory. Another theory is that it could be something to do with threat. It could be that individuals perceive black targets as being more threatening, and so they inhibit their shooting behavior less because they're more threatened. So you can think of it as kind of a defensive response.

RATH: So talk about the implications of your findings for law enforcement.

MEKAWI: I think, generally speaking, what this highlights is that even though a person might say, I'm not racist or I'm not prejudiced, it doesn't necessarily mean that race doesn't influence their split-second decisions. One implication could be that there should be education about the fact that these biases exist and that they could be outside of one's control. So even if you think that you're not prejudiced, you're not biased that doesn't certainly mean that that's true, in terms of split-second decisions you might the real world.

RATH: Yara Mekawi of the University of Illinois. She's one of the authors of a new meta-analysis of race and trigger bias. Yara, thank you.

MEKAWI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.