Guns

Study: People Faster to Shoot White Suspects than Black Suspects

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Gun
University Campus Suffolk

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.

Sometimes a social science study turns up something interesting.

Correction: The original article quoted here incorrectly reported the difference as 24-milliseconds. The error as has been rectified both there and here. I should have caught the mistake, and I am grateful to several astute commenters for bringing the error to my attention. Thank you.

NEXT: Black Americans Failed by Good Intentions: Q/A with Jason Riley

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  1. 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.

    Emphasis added. RACIST!

    1. Just another legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.

  2. That’s definitely a study I would like to see repeated with a larger pool of participants, assuming that the metho0dology doesn’t turn out to be bunk for some reason. Not speculating that it is, just acknowledging that it could be. Not even trying to cast any doubt. I hope it’s not. It’s an interesting result.

  3. It takes a quarter of a second to suppress the laughter when you encounter someone holding their handgun sideways.

    1. If anyone ever does shoot at me, I hope they are holding their handgun exactly like that. I figure I can double-tap them while they are ineffectually punching holes in the air.

  4. See guys hate crime laws do work.

  5. Ron, you just took the wind out of Red Tony’s sails. I’m sure he had a post queued up about how Reason won’t cover this because they’re all closet Jezebel acolytes or something.

  6. Sometimes a social science study turns up something interesting.

    Like the fact that 24 milliseconds is pretty fucking insignificant?

    1. Like the fact that press release writers don’t know the difference between 24 milliseconds and 240 millisecond?

      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 24-millisecond difference may seem small,

      .24 seconds == 240 milliseconds.

      1. Ha, good point. Even so a quarter of a second is a pretty short time.

        1. Ever been in a gunfight? A quarter of a second is about how long it takes to pull a trigger first, or not.

          1. playing counter-strike doesn’t count as being in a gunfight

          2. No. Have you?

            1. Yes, a few.

        2. When you are shooting at people and they are shooting at you, every second (or 1/4 second) can stretch out, horribly so.

        3. That’s kind of high for a 9mm split. You can shoot twice in .24 seconds.

          Well, you probably can’t. But other, better people could.

      2. Like the fact that press release writers don’t know the difference between 24 milliseconds and 240 millisecond?

        Hence my statement below about linking to studies, not press releases.

    1. But what minority group was Greedo and how long did it take Han to shoot.

      1. I have heard it’s not easy being green.

        1. meh… it’s a pretty soothing color.

        2. Speak for yourself foolish mammal. I’m ballin outta control on my branch.

  7. So the study appeared to show unconscious bias, but also a successful, even overcompensating attempt to overcome that bias, at least in a laboratory setting. No clue about how it relates to the real world.

    1. In the real world I doubt it matters. No one gives a shit about race if someone shoves a gun in their face.

  8. 1. Ron, please rise above other “science journalists” and link to the actual study, not press releases. I believe this is it, assuming the press release has been (re)issued late to capitalize on Ferguson.

    2. A problem for the authors, not you, but I have my doubts about the ecological* validity of this study.

    *or is it construct? I can’t remember

    1. As long as they shot lots of white people in the process, we should all agree it was at least a good idea.

    2. Be nice if Springer didn’t want to charge $45 to read the article, though.

      1. Indeed. If you know someone who is a student/faculty/staff at a university, they will probably be able to get it for “free”.

        Sometimes if you search for the article on Google Scholar you will come across an ungated PDF (not in this case, though).

        Also, if you email one of the authors (preferably the corresponding author, though in this case it does not appear to be denoted on the Springer page) they will usually email you a proof copy.

    3. Depends on your critique. If you suspect the author’s inferences are wrong then you are talking about “construct validity.” If you suspect the setting provided for the study participants doesn’t accurately represent real-world conditions then you are talking about “ecological validity.”

      Since the study involves people’s reaction to perceived deadly situation I don’t see how you can achieve 100% ecological validity. But much like a flight simulator for emergency procedures training, you can get pretty close.

  9. Disclaimer: Ron Bailey does not hold his gun sideways.

  10. As a staunch advocate for equality in all forms, I’ll tell you that we need to shoot black people faster than we currently do. Rest assured that our dear friends in law enforcement are working on a solution.

  11. 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.

    In 0.3 seconds time? bullshit.

    I am thinking it is just a matter of the limitations of the human eye, light and identification. It is simply easier for a person to identify what a light skin hand holding a black gun is doing faster then it is to identify what a black skin hand holding a black gun is doing.

    1. Yes – I did these kinds of exercises in the Army. HD projection, a rifle or pistol with a laser and compressed air to simulate recoil.

      You know as soon as they turn it on, you will be shooting somebody 95% of the time. It’s just a matter of waiting until it’s appropriate and shooting only the right people.

      I shot men and women of every ethnic group on these things. The Chinese Infantry human wave assaults were the scariest and most fun.

    2. There’s a phenomena commonly referred to “time dilation” that occurs during particularly stressful situations, especially those involving life or death. Time actually seems to slow waaayy down, and you can do a lot of thinking in 0.3 seconds.

  12. 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.

    Sometimes a social science study turns up something interesting.

    Given how gunshy a couple of generations of race baiting has made your average American, it’s hard to see this as counter-intuitive. In a lab environment, no one wants to be known as the racist participant who shot multiple homeless black men because he’s too quick on the draw.

    And identifying this wavering as a reason why police are killing black criminals at a more appropriate ratio to white criminals (assuming the trend holds beyond the two years mentioned in the study) than they were a generation ago is presumptuous, though that’s sort of necessary if you’re going to fiddle around with experimental social sciences sans Skinner boxes.

  13. Of the 183 million whites in 1998, police killed 225; of the 27 million blacks, police killed 127.

    Of course, this analysis fails to account for the number of situations in which police are interacting with “potentially hostile” whites vs. the number of situations police are interacting with “potentially hostile” blacks.

    Please note that I hate to use the term “potentially hostile” as it would appear to give the police cover. My main point is that the higher rates of criminality, especially violent crimes, among blacks may be a pretty large factor in determining the relative comparison of white vs black victims of police shootings. For example, blacks and whites and account for a nearly equal number of murderers, so we would expect that raw numbers of people blacks killed by police to be similar in that regard to the number of whites killed.

    1. Disparate impact!!!!

    2. If anything these numbers could suggest cops are harder on whites.

  14. Were the black shooters harder to see?

  15. Or…. it could be that since the participants in the study were 85% white, and it’s easier to identify and read nuance in those similar to you, it simply took less time for their brains to recognize the white suspects and register the threats. It’s an evolutionary thing, related to facial recognition. I severely doubt it has anything to do with

    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.

    especially since it’s all “fight or flight” on those time scales, and thoughts like that don’t even enter consideration.

    1. Yeah, my thoughts went in this direction as well. But I kept thinking along the lines of a lighter skinned face is easier to identify certain features that the mind demands it recognizes before it will allow the body to respond. It is very difficult for the average human to shoot another human in the face even in simulation – they are far more likely to shoot elsewhere. I wouldn’t be surprised by the connection if it were made in future research. An interesting research project would be to see if people who are trained in a game or simulation to shoot at the head would have less biased reaction times or if it would get even more divergent.

      1. I have read some studies that show during war, the most dangerous time of all, only 20% of soldiers aim to hit someone. Most people aim high. When it comes down to it, the average person can’t kill someone, even when their own life is in danger. Unless you are a highly trained policeman. Because they don’t seem to have a problem.

        1. “On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society” [Dave Grossman]

          While an interesting read for the statistics, the author’s personal opinions should be taken with a grain of salt, as Mr. Grossman has never been in combat or killed anyone.

        2. Highly trained policeman…that’s funny.

          http://nation.time.com/2013/09…..ystanders/

  16. I don’t see what’s counter-intuitive about this at all. The majority of the time a white person so much as leaves a scratch on a black person, the white person is made to go through hell. Action taken in self defense against blacks will bring about far more scrutiny than any other being that they are a protected class.
    Having grown up around blacks I guess it has become second nature to me to be very conscious of my actions around/with them as anything, no matter how benign, is gnat fart away from blowing up into some racial issue.
    Forget about actually shooting one of them in self defense.. good lord, that might be worse than the alternative.

    1. Yeah, it’s like physically defending yourself against a woman. You’ll end up having to rebut a presumption of guilt unless you have actual witnesses.

  17. I would think that people pull the trigger faster on whites than blacks is because (as the article says) they feel more threatened. I find it a stretch to think that the hesitation is due to some “counter bias” based on concerns about social and legal consequences. I think that people become paralyzed by fear and that may account for the slower response rate is more in line with what the electroencephalograph shows.

  18. Was watching some youtube “Pranks in the Hood” clips the other day featuring a group of white twentysomethings playing practical jokes on black people. They’d approach the black people and ask questions like, “You wanna help me bust a nut?” And after a moment, they’d reveal a mini hammer and a walnut or almond or something. In another, the prankster asks them if they want to “get popped,” and then reveals a can of soda in his pocket.

    In a surprising number of the clips, the black people barely paused before punching or attacking the pranksters. In a lot of them, the pranksters hardly have time to confess its a prank before getting attacked.

    No idea if they only show the best/most violent responses and edit out the rest, but it made me wonder if they had a black prankster doing the same sorts of pranks on a white audience, if the white audience would respond the same way. My hypothesis would be that the response, contrary to all the MSM and academic crying about racism and institutional bias against blacks, would show less violence towards blacks than the reverse. It’d be an interesting experiment (that will never happen) either way.

  19. “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.”

    Personally, I suspect it’s far more likely that people are more worried that blacks are more likely than whites to shoot back.

  20. With such a small sample size, the results are not particularly statistically significant. The study does not necessarily mean that the police are cognizant of the racial difference. More probable is that the black felons are simply behaving differently today when facing arrest. In fact is is entirely evident when one considers Figure 4 –

    “Race of felons killed by police in justifiable homicides: Percent white, black, and other, 1976-98 ”

    African Americans are just behaving differently than the did thirty years agol

  21. Faster isn’t always better. Just ask Little Bill.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jRi_u4GbfIw

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