Americans shown pictures of black men and white men perceived the black men as bigger, stronger and more dangerous even when they were the same size as white men, highlighting implicit bias in American life, an American Psychological Association study published Monday found.
In a series of experiments, a team of researchers showed 950 study U.S. participants color photographs of black and white men and asked the participants to estimate the height, weight, strength and muscularity of the men pictured. The researchers found the black men were judged to be "larger, stronger and more muscular than white men, even though they were actually the same size," said John Wilson of Montclair University, the study's lead author.
But the black men weren't just viewed as bigger or stronger. They were also viewed as more dangerous.
"Participants also believed that the black men were more capable of causing harm in a hypothetical altercation and, troublingly, that police would be more justified in using force to subdue them, even if the men were unarmed," Wilson said.
The tendency of Americans to view black men as more dangerous could have deadly consequences. Police officers often have to decide whether to use their firearms based on subjective evaluations of danger. As the study's authors point out, usually this evaluation is fairly straightforward — a suspect has a deadly weapon. But in other cases, "the officer relies on a qualitative assessment of the target’s physical size and strength to gauge the magnitude of threat and the need for force," the study's authors wrote. "These circumstances are more ambiguous and, thus, more susceptible to errors resulting from systematic biases."
In a separate study published earlier this year, researchers found that among victims of fatal police shootings, blacks were twice as likely as whites to have been unarmed when they were shot.
The new research, which was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, also found that black men with more stereotypically "black" features were perceived as even larger and more dangerous than black men with lighter skin.
And while the researchers found that both white and black participants overestimated the size and strength of black men, black participants did not view black men as more dangerous.