About the SA Blog Network

Guest Blog

Guest Blog

Commentary invited by editors of Scientific American
Guest Blog HomeAboutContact

Trayvon Martin’s Psychological Killer: Why We See Guns That Aren’t There

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Email   PrintPrint

When George Zimmerman saw Trayvon Martin walking down the street in Sanford, Florida, he quickly assumed that the Black, hoodie-clad teenager was carrying a weapon.

He then pulled out his gun and fatally shot the young student, whose hands were gripping nothing more than a bag of Skittles.

The fact that George Zimmerman assumed so quickly that Trayvon Martin was armed smacks of the worst kind of prejudice and racism. It is a tragic assumption that led to the death of an innocent young student, who had simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time. But, unfortunately, a 2002 study by psychologist Joshua Correll suggests that the average, run-of-the-mill college student might have acted the exact same way.

If you had a split second to decide whether or not to shoot someone in front of you, do you think you would shoot? Do you think the other person’s skin color would matter? To test the idea that people might respond differently to Black and White targets, Correll and colleagues designed a first-person shooting game to test how ordinary people might make the split-second decision to either shoot or not shoot a potentially armed target, otherwise known as the Police Officer’s Dilemma.

Groups of college students were told that a series of people would come on the screen in front of them and would either be holding a gun or a neutral object, like a wallet, aluminum can, or cell phone. If the participants correctly shot an armed target, they would receive 10 points; if they correctly did not shoot an unarmed target, they would receive 5 points. Shooting an unarmed target deducted 20 points, and not shooting an armed target – the most potentially dangerous outcome for a real police officer on the streets – would result in the harshest penalty of all, a 40-point deduction.

As each target appeared on screen, participants had to decide as quickly as possible if the target was holding a gun or a harmless object, and subsequently whether to shoot or not shoot by pushing a “shoot” or “don’t shoot” button. Unbeknownst to participants, the researchers had manipulated one critical feature of the targets – some of the targets were White and some were Black.

The researchers ultimately found a clear case of what they termed shooter bias. Over a series of four studies, participants were faster to (correctly) shoot an armed target when he was Black, and faster to (correctly) decide not to shoot an unarmed target when he was White. But the truly interesting and tragic finding lies in what happened when people decided to shoot the target when he was actually holding nothing more than a wallet or a cell phone, much like what happened in the real-life case of Trayvon Martin. As it turns out, the participants were consistently more likely to accidentally shoot unarmed targets when they were Black.

Surely this must be influenced by racism, thought the researchers. After all, it would certainly make sense that racist people would be more likely to jump to the conclusion that Black people are armed. Wouldn’t non-racist people be more likely to disregard the color of the target’s skin when making judgments? Wouldn’t non-racist people – especially those who are well aware of the negative stereotypes towards Black people in American culture, and those who consciously try to fight against prejudice in their everyday lives – be more forgiving on the trigger?

Unfortunately, that hypothesis could not be further from the truth. First of all, no matter how racist the participants were (or were not), they were equally likely to shoot unarmed Black targets; outright levels of racism did not predict the results at all. However, one thing did predict performance on the task – the participants’ level of awareness that there is prejudice towards Black people in American society, even if the participant adamantly did not support those stereotypes. Simply being highly aware of prejudice in the world, even if you don’t agree with, support, or like that prejudice, makes it more likely that you might make the fateful mistake of shooting an unarmed target when making split-second decisions in uncertain conditions. The more aware you are of cultural stereotypes, the more likely you are to make a biased mistake.

Dismissing what happened to Trayvon Martin by pinning the entire tragedy on Zimmerman’s racism and failing to acknowledge the cultural forces that may have been at work on his behavior is a dismissal of years of social psychological research that has tried over and over again to hammer in the importance of situational forces. Correll’s research demonstrated that everyone – even an upstanding college undergraduate lacking any racial prejudice – is vulnerable to making racially biased decisions, particularly under the split-second pressures of the Police Officer’s Dilemma. Did racism motivate George Zimmerman’s actions against Trayvon Martin? Yes. But does a person have to be racist to make the same split-second decision? No.

When you grow up in a culture that endorses certain stereotypes, they become ingrained in your cultural knowledge; even if you don’t endorse them, they can still impact your behavior in stunningly horrifying ways. A study from the 1940s demonstrated that young Black girls often preferred to play with White-skinned dolls over Black-skinned dolls, presumably because they were growing up in a culture that endorsed the idea that White = Beautiful. When the “shooting game” task was given to Black participants, they turned out to be just as likely to accidentally shoot unarmed Black targets as the White participants were.

At the end of the day, it’s not always about whether or not you are racist, or whether or not you think that Black people are violent. Cultural stereotypes can become automatically activated and applied to our behaviors even when we don’t actually endorse them; the sheer knowledge that these stereotypes exist can be enough to influence our judgments, especially when it comes to split-second decisions. Because of cultural stereotypes, the shooters in Correll’s games had a lower threshold for when they would decide it was OK to shoot at Black targets, although most of them probably could not have told you that this was happening, and most of them would have been appalled to find out about their biases.

Personalities are important, but culture – and the immediate situation – are important too.

There’s no doubt that George Zimmerman was a racist man. For example, we now know that he called 911 an alarming number of times in the past, simply to report the presence of Black people that he felt looked “suspicious.” However, reducing this tragedy to the evil actions of an evil man ignores a much deeper problem that merits all of our consideration:

What are the consequences of growing up in a world that is planting the seeds of racism deep within all of our minds every day?


Note: Psychological aspects of the Trayvon Martin case have been covered very well elsewhere in the blogosphere as well. Some particularly good examples are here and here.

Correll, J., Park, B., Judd, C.M., & Wittenbrink, B. (2002). The police officer’s dilemma: Using ethnicity to disambiguate potentially threatening individuals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83 (6), 1314-29 PMID: 12500813

Correll, J., Wittenbrink, B., Park, B., Judd, C., & Goyle, A. (2011). Dangerous enough: Moderating racial bias with contextual threat cues. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47 (1), 184-189 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2010.08.017

Image: werthmedia on Flickr.

Melanie Tannenbaum About the Author: Melanie Tannenbaum is a doctoral candidate in social psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she received an M.A. in social psychology in 2011. Her research focuses on the science of persuasion & motivation regarding political, health-related, and environmental behavior. You can add her on Twitter or visit her personal webpage. Follow on Twitter @melanietbaum.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Previous: Not a Normal Killing More
Guest Blog
Next: Pink Slime, Deconstructed

Comments 54 Comments

Add Comment
  1. 1. njcjuhkuusb 2:41 pm 03/26/2012

    I agree that subconscious prejudices increase the chances of making a wrong split-second decision. But the problem with Zimmerman was not just the presumed split-second decision to shoot, but a long series of bad, racist, and ultimately criminal decisions that led to the shooting.

    First, Zimmerman was carrying a weapon during his “neighborhood watch”, despite police departments universally condemning this practice. I find it hard to believe that Zimmerman “didn’t get the memo”.

    Second, Zimmerman decided to follow (should I say, stalk) his victim, despite the insistence of the 911 dispatcher not to do so.

    Third, Zimmerman decided to confront Trayvon Martin, again contrary to what he was told to do by authorities. It was Zimmerman who escalated (actually, created) the conflict, thus making a “self-defense” argument untenable.

    Link to this
  2. 2. E81ER 2:57 pm 03/26/2012

    Being a non-american, it’s nice that someone is finally suggesting that Trayvon died because of a gun-problem, more-so than a race-problem

    Link to this
  3. 3. willpeavy 3:04 pm 03/26/2012

    I am doubtful that the shooter was *forced* to make a split-second decision. If the shooter observed a person that he believed was suspicious, the shooter could have simply reported the suspicious person to the police – then kept his distance. However, the shooter choose not to keep his distance. The shooter needlessly chose to put himself in a position where he would have to make a decision about whether to fire a weapon.

    Link to this
  4. 4. DNLee 3:29 pm 03/26/2012

    Thanks for the post Melanie. It’s a great opportunity to explore the research in psychology and culture that definitely had a play in the tragic situation…and affects us all at a deeper level.

    Link to this
  5. 5. mikeknr 4:36 pm 03/26/2012

    njcjuhkuusb….did Mr Zimmerman ‘escalate (actually, create) the conflict, thus making a “self-defense” argument untenable.’ because he was patrolling the neighborhood, as was his right, carrying a permitted weapon, and bleeding on the sidewalk after having been viciously attacked from behide by some gangster pot-suspended-from-school little thug? Was THAT Mr. Zimmerman’s crime bud? Seriously? Well, if I ever get into this situation, I will probably pretty much handle it the same way, and I will under no circumstances whatsoever make the foolish assumption that the black, hoodie-wearing punk in front of me is unarmed. I will treat him with due caution and respect and I will not hesitate to use my weapon to defend myself and my family, no matter what race baiters might then say.

    Link to this
  6. 6. Bora Zivkovic 4:49 pm 03/26/2012

    Careful people! The article is not about the specific case (George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin). It is an article about interesting psychological research. That research may help inform the case, but not vice versa. The case is more of a “hook” to discuss this interesting research.

    Thus – the comment thread should be about that psychological research and NOT about the case.

    Link to this
  7. 7. Amersci 5:01 pm 03/26/2012

    Melanie, you obviously know a lot about psychology, but you need to do more research about the current event you apply your theories to. The first two paragraphs and the first half of the third of this article read as your creation of fiction, and show your bias. Unless you interviewed Mr. Zimmerman, you have no idea what he assumed when he met Mr. Martin. Witnesses say that Zimmerman only shot Martin after Martin had Zimmerman on the ground and was beating him in the face. I doubt Martin had anything in his hands at that time. Citing that case for this article is purely sensationalism on your part. Please stop adding fuel to the already out of control race fire.

    Link to this
  8. 8. Bora Zivkovic 5:07 pm 03/26/2012

    @Amersci – see comment #6.

    Link to this
  9. 9. Melanie Tannenbaum 5:50 pm 03/26/2012

    Thank you for keeping people focused on the research, Bora. I appreciate it.

    For all readers, I would like to paste this response, which I left in a comment thread on Google+ and think is also probably appropriate here:

    “I appreciate that the details are still unclear, and that people vary in the degrees to which they are willing to believe certain aspects of the case. However, I truly hope that people can still appreciate and grasp the larger psychological point of my piece, the specifics of the Trayvon Martin case aside. I happen to believe the version of the event that I described in my piece, which is why I wrote it that way. However, if that turns out not to be accurate, there is still a larger point that remains – cultural stereotypes can influence our split-second judgments, even if we do not personally endorse them. This is really scary & important to know, and it transcends current events. I do hope that people can still take that out of this article, even if they don’t agree with my portrayal of the specific Trayvon Martin incident.”

    Link to this
  10. 10. Onoku 6:52 pm 03/26/2012

    @mikeknr Wow, Zimmerman chased down Martin and somehow was attacked by him from behind? I was unaware that Martin had super-ninja skills. I am sure he baited Zimmerman into chasing, before performing his black belt 17th degree sneak attack, right?

    So do you also make a habit of chasing black kids under the assumption that they are up to no good?

    Link to this
  11. 11. horlinrot 6:54 pm 03/26/2012

    Melanie, FYI, making unverified suppositions about material facts in a criminal matter is definitely not something that real journalists should be doing — even if it’s in the service of a “larger point.”

    Link to this
  12. 12. DODAVATAR 8:16 pm 03/26/2012

    Perhaps the author (Tannenbaum) would show less bias if she considered the responses of students living in high crime areas. USC students would be an example, living in an extremely high crime area. What would their responses be to hooded white or black aggressors as opposed to students from a low crime area like University of Colorado students in Boulder Colorado? Perceptions in urban areas are far different than suburban or rural areas. Why do you suppose Carry Concealed Weapons (CCW) permits are skyrocketing.

    Lastly, Zimmerman was attacked by this young hoodlum and fired while or just after he was knocked to the ground.

    Link to this
  13. 13. The Ridger 8:27 pm 03/26/2012

    We do not know what happened. That means we cannot believe Zimmerman’s story that he was attacked simply because he’s telling it; we have no evidence other than the word of a man who called 911 on little children. But we do know that he pursued the man he killed even though he was instructed not to. I do not believe that in this case he had only a split-second to make up his mind.

    Link to this
  14. 14. builder9119 9:59 pm 03/26/2012

    I’ll tell you what… if what Zimmerman says is true then he must be the biggest bitch in the world! A 240lb. man with a 9 mil. handgun gets jumped and beat up by a 140lb. boy with a bag of skittles, screams “help, help” and is so terrified that he has to shoot and kill the kid. I tell you, this is no person to be on anybodies neighborhood watch.

    Link to this
  15. 15. LindaPolk 10:40 pm 03/26/2012

    Protests over the senseless death of Trayvon Martin is a positive outrage that may lead to healing and change, but let’s be real about the cause. This death was one of the many consequences created by using a “them-against-us” approach instead of healing to deal with people who appear to be different from “us”. Today over 66 million Americans have felony convictions. Since they have families, that makes over 130 million Americans who flinch when they see a police officer. A large segment of those 130 million approach life from a “me-against-The-Man” philosophy, and to protect themselves they often join gangs. Baggie clothes, bandannas, and hoodies are styles these gangs, and many people not in gangs, have used to unite and identity each other. . . . . The Zimmermans of the world are not part of a growing “underclass”. They were not raised in homes where Moms and Dads are/have been in prison, so they traded their compassion for protection. Their views are tainted by the nightly dose of fear sold to them on Fox NEWS and other media outlets. “If it bleeds, it leads,” is a common saying among broadcasters for a reason. IT IS FEAR THAT KILLED Trayvon…. The guilty parties include our own Government leaders who sell fear to promote themselves and garner votes…. At http://www.I am convicted, we promote the message that “hate got us into this, and only love is going to get us out”…. Please join us. Let’s start a movement for a loving change where kids matter and grown-ups do too. ttp://

    Link to this
  16. 16. RJ Malmad 1:37 am 03/27/2012

    While Ms. Tannebaum is eager to establish her visibility and professional capability on her way to her PhD, her article and the reactions of her readers would have been more on point and less embarrassing if her observations, arguments and conclusions were based upon the full set of facts. Further, it doesn’t help matters by lifting her off her petard with the ‘spin’ that the event was the hook for discussion of a larger issue. If phenomena such as this are to be addressed properly in Scientific American, they should adhere to a scientist’s discipline

    Link to this
  17. 17. Lalsox 6:50 am 03/27/2012

    I’m not surprised that commenters are having trouble staying off the specific case and focusing on the research presented in the article. As a resident of Central FL, I can tell you that the community outrage (on both sides of the argument) that is being reported in the media is minute compared to what is going on here in town. People are not yet ready to be done being angry about this case.

    As to the research, I immediately wondered whether I would react the same way as the subjects in the study. I tell myself, of course, that I would not and I am horrified by the possibility (probability) that I might. Perhaps the commenters prefer to attack the facts of the case rather than examine themselves in light of the research. It’s an uncomfortable feeling, to be sure.

    Link to this
  18. 18. pokerplyer 9:07 am 03/27/2012

    Yet another example of the writers at unScientific American jumping to conclusions with insufficient facts to support the conclusions written.

    Melanie Tannenbaum – you are a hack of a journalist to write articles such as this. You do not know that facts of the incident, and neither do I. The lack of factual information doesn’t stop you from jumping to conclusions and writing that you know about what the parties in the incident were thinking and what they were doing. How about you stop writing like you know the facts when you really don’t? How about letting due process work?

    Link to this
  19. 19. JerryWood 11:18 am 03/27/2012

    When Zimmerman began his tracking, How is the movement of Zimmermans to be viewed by Martin:

    Introspection: Has Zimmerman began his stalking movement with greater caution. Or, does Zimmerman move with ease, as if, walking towards an old friend. Im going to remove walking with ease towards the old friend and focus on moving with caution.

    Zimmerman lacks the technical training to ask thoughtful questions.
    (I believe, is demonstrated by the shooting and im going to return to this point.)

    Have we reached a point of legal entrapment, where Martin is now placed into a situation that is too idealistic or difficult standard to attain with reasonable ease, that Martin or anyone can not work thru.

    I believe, the law states, there should be no responsibility for failure to attain a standard that was beyond the capacities of the accused.

    Aggression is not a crime. There are times, when under duress, aggression is not a crime.
    (I believe, Duress exists by Martin, from his call to girlfriend stating, someone is following me)

    Aggression is subjective to whom holds the point of view, and it requires greater explanantion to remove aggression. Sample: Zimmerman belief following an unknown person, whom crimianl activity is not removed. Versus, viewing the old friend. However, Martin began viewing Zimmerman as a threat. Zimmerman was on a community watch. (Call to Martins girlfriend stating, im being followed.)

    [What If] Martins conducted after being confronted by the person following him, upon seeing a gun, [he] slugged the stalker. Based From Martins Past experience [when]…considered a hero…intervention by a previous incdent. Is that prior event possibly shaping an immpressionable Teenagers mindset?

    Ques: Would this simple act by Martin to slug a threat be considered a breach in minimal standards of conduct [slug=zimmerman]?

    Ques: Does Zimmerman when becoming proactive in tracking a suspect and ignore 911 dispatcher, to not follow, pursue the suspect with a gun, will Zimmerman have to move in a way that insures both peoples rights are preserved…to escape criminal liability?

    What standards are there or must be met, to preserve Martins life from poorly trained citizen, where to remove meeting a Standard, Martin becomes aggressive at being confronted by the stalker, whereas the pursuit of ciminal liability does not exists.

    Again, have we reached a point of legal entrapment, where Martin is now placed into a situation that is too idealistic or difficult standard to attain with reasonable ease.

    Link to this
  20. 20. pokerplyer 12:22 pm 03/27/2012

    Jerrywood– How about waiting for all the facts to come out before jumping to conclusions about what happened and what was done wrong and by whom?

    Many have jumped to conclusions, but most of those will be found to be wrong?

    Link to this
  21. 21. Akylax 12:31 pm 03/27/2012

    Um, last I checked, this was a post about an interesting (and somewhat disturbing) psychological study. It’s clearly not meant to be a detailed explanation of George Zimmerman’s motivation.

    Trying to review it as such is like complaining about anachronisms in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” You’re missing the point.

    Link to this
  22. 22. JerryWood 12:43 pm 03/27/2012

    I underlined the point to the authors closing remarks…i.e.The greater issue: Again, have we reached a point of legal entrapment, where Martin is now placed into a situation that is too idealistic or difficult standard to attain with reasonable ease to work thru.

    Link to this
  23. 23. janvones 4:34 pm 03/27/2012

    The average run of the mill college student isn’t riding around looking for people to hunt and kill. This has nothing to do with policing and everything to do with a self-appointed psychopath given free rein by a criminally negligent municipal authority.

    Link to this
  24. 24. JerryWood 5:20 pm 03/27/2012

    janvones: Subjective language has greater gravity then your giving it credit for. Ques: is the issue poor recognition or is it subterfuge.

    By focusing on good form, a person whom unconsciously makes mistakes, where that person is interpreted as racist. If, that person maybe reached thru training: i.e. how-to better work thru a problem. Will only increase the ratio of good form to bad form.

    In the end, that is what the focus is…to teach.

    Link to this
  25. 25. isa10 6:26 pm 03/27/2012

    The account of the incident that Ms. Tannenbaum provides is factually wrong. Mr. Zimmerman did not just met a “black” boy and shot him in cold blood. This is a malicious lie that the lame-stream press and Ms. Tannenbaum want us to believe. And Mr. Zimmerman is not a racist man. Recently numerous press accounts (including reporting on some local San Francisco TV stations which no one would call right-wing) revealed what really happened and the real attitude of Mr. Zimmerman towards blacks.
    If you start with a false premise the rest of the article is BS.

    Link to this
  26. 26. janvones 6:43 pm 03/27/2012

    If I understand your point, Jerry, you mean that better training would help prevent such cases as the Martin murder? My point is that there was no training or even a program here. According to press reports this was a self appointed lone member of an otherwise non-existent neighborhood watch.

    I will admit to being prejudiced toward the notion that without common sense and moral judgment all the training in the world amounts to a hill of beans. I am not sure how authorities could have dealt with him in the lack of a prior criminal complaint. But it seems quite clear that his loose cannon nature was known to the authorities who now see fit to tar the victim as worthy of lynching because he once smoked a joint.

    It is a heart wrenching tragedy that this will be addressed finally (I expect) in criminal court.

    Link to this
  27. 27. JohnSmith57 7:23 pm 03/27/2012

    “There’s no doubt that George Zimmerman was a racist man.”

    I don’t think Scientific American does its readers a service by posting commentary like this. This is ill-informed opinion, not science.

    Link to this
  28. 28. Redpenmaster 7:48 pm 03/27/2012

    The study is nice, but there’s a much simpler way of explaining this phenomenon. About 6% of the people in the United States are black males, and these folks commit about 52% of all the murders – most against other black people.

    Even if you don’t know these numbers, you probably still feel the reality. These figures should be included in any and every attempt to explain biases like the ones explored in this article. Some people are tired of being labeled racists simply for living in reality.

    Link to this
  29. 29. bob01721 8:20 pm 03/27/2012

    “… Black participants, they turned out to be just as likely to accidentally shoot unarmed Black targets as the White participants were…”
    So it ISN’T about racism, cultural forces, or stereotypes.

    Link to this
  30. 30. marbiol 10:14 pm 03/27/2012

    Excellent perspective!! This article shows particular insight in that it reveals facts not currently known to many of us. For example:

    “When George Zimmerman saw Trayvon Martin walking down the street in Sanford, Florida, he quickly assumed that the Black, hoodie-clad teenager was carrying a weapon.

    He then pulled out his gun and fatally shot the young student…”

    So far we have witnesses attesting there was a scuffle–and both men were on the ground; the reports are that it was during this activity that the young man was shot.

    clearly that information does NOT conform to the author’s description of the interaction of the two men.(e.g.,

    Link to this
  31. 31. lawsofnature 10:23 pm 03/27/2012

    How did this essay make it into SciAm? And, how did it make it past the editors in this condition? I understand the premise and it is an interesting discussion of possible roots of this tragedy, but how can we conclude that Zimmerman is a “racist man” and an “evil man” from the little information that has trickled out through media sources with an agenda. I certainly don’t know what Mr. Zimmerman “assumed” about Mr. Martin that night, and I doubt that Ms. Tannenbaum has access to that information. Since the tragedy, we’ve seen conflicting reports, “new” information that has cast doubt on previous speculation (asserted as fact), and totally inaccurate reporting. The official police report hasn’t been released, complete witness statement haven’t been released, and conclusions about how the events of that night transpired have been based entirely on multiple layers of hearsay and “facts” cited by people nowhere near the incident when it ocurred. Segments of this story smack of libel.

    Link to this
  32. 32. Postman1 11:40 pm 03/27/2012

    janvones- “The average run of the mill college student isn’t riding around looking for people to hunt and kill.”

    The ‘average college student’ (actually high school) isn’t wandering through a neighborhood at 3:00AM. Also hasn’t been suspended three times for infractions including drug possession and possession of burglary tools and likely stolen women’s jewelry. (he admitted the jewelry wasn’t his)

    Link to this
  33. 33. Mattw0699 2:31 am 03/28/2012

    In real life, is there a problem of whites shooting innocent blacks? Overwhelmingly blacks kill blacks, and whites kill whites. The cross-over is small, but there is more of a problem of blacks killing whites.

    If you want to solve real problems, stop blacks from clogging up our prisons. I guess we could just let them go so they can terrorize black neighborhoods.

    George Zimmerman made a rush to judgement as Trayvon Martin was slamming his head on the ground. And that was after Trayvon punched George so hard in the nose that George hit the street. That was when Trayvon jumped on him.

    Why didn’t the police arrest George? Perhaps George had a credible story of self-defense like a broken nose and blood on the back of his head.

    Link to this
  34. 34. JerryWood 12:08 pm 03/28/2012

    Mattw0699- “…credible story of self-defense like a broken nose…”

    Your argument i will view thru a fulcrum Versus lever movement.

    When is Aggression not a crime.
    What If: Martin made a declaration to his girlfriend, “im being followed”.[Martin] girlfriend stated, “walk faster”.

    Duress, involves flight or fight from an incident.

    Ques: Why/How was Zimmerman viewed as a threat by Martin…as you stated, recvd broken nose?

    Rational introspection: the average teenager does not cold-cock a passerby, how would this occur?

    Link to this
  35. 35. DrLPalmer 3:49 pm 03/28/2012

    Like an O.Henry tale, from here as an onlooker it appears more than obvious that the shooter is/was a stalker looking for an opportunity to use his gun. An unregistered gun-toting volunteer community watch enthusiast raises flags for me. His ignoring of direction to not confront and escalate indicates intention to shoot. A deep investigation into his background is needed here. Examining the effects of what clothes he wore or other racial and social aspects seems off track to me. Investigate this killing as a crime and look for motive involving intent to kill with a gun.

    Link to this
  36. 36. tcwatson 5:33 pm 03/28/2012

    The assumptions in this article and many of the comments are getting way ahead of the known facts. Let’s at least wait until the grand jury evaluates the available evidence before we make our decisions. To do less is unjust and certainly unscientific.

    Link to this
  37. 37. Postman1 6:53 pm 03/28/2012

    Jerrywood- “Rational introspection: the average teenager does not cold-cock a passerby, how would this occur?”
    The average teenager does not get caught with burglary tools and likely stolen ladies’ jewelry. The average teenager is not out wandering around a residential neighborhood at 3:00AM. The average teenager does not punch a school bus driver. The average teenager does not cold cock a neighborhood watchman from behind, jump on top, and pummel him in the face. This teenager did all the above.

    Link to this
  38. 38. JRCancio 9:04 pm 03/28/2012

    The problem with this so called reportage is that it shows the bias of the reporter, first in not getting the facts straight; second, not verifying the details of her reportage. In this situation as is Zimmerman’s own words and now supported by two other witnesses at or near the scene; Zimmerman had turned to return to his vehicle when he was brutally and savagely attacked from behind, suffered a broken nose and a “stunning blow” to the back of his head and his head was there after repeated slammed into the ground to the point Zimmerman could not any longer defend himself….late at night in a neighborhood where 15 burglaries had occurred, most also late at night, all done by black men in hoodies. Yes Trayvon could be innocent. But he is not innocent of a brutal attack on another human being.

    Zimmerman has a right just like any one else to be where he is at and he does not need anyone’s permission; in an area frequented by crime he has a right to be cautious, in defense of his life he has a right to defend himself..

    I prefer not to rush to judgement; but I am also here to tell you; none of us were there to live through what Zimmerman experienced in this situation…lastly bestowing glorification to this 17 years, who does have a tainted history, if it is proved he did strike the first blows to Zimmerman, if he continued his attack on a person unable to defend himself, Trayvon got what he deserved…brutally kicking repeatedly a man on ground offering no resistance…if that also true…again Zimmerman has a right to defend himself. I think personally, Trayvon should be looked at as a person gulity of a brutal and violent hate crime.

    My last comment, to address the difference of size; it makes no difference what so ever as most people in their pacified ignorance don’t know how easy it is to kill someone. We hear all the time of old ladies 89 years of age and weighing 92 pounds dising out justice to persons of far greater stature, both height and weight and far younger and healthier, bringing them harm. Justice is what this situation is all about and I don’t appreciate ignorant arrogant reportage by a wantabe reporter trying to make a name for themselves by fanning the flames. We are a nation of laws; let the law handle this. And if this be the communist in the White House Obama’s son, Trayvon’s actions are explained and understandable. Someone objected the taking of property to spread the wealth when in this situation the property is a man’s life, Zimmerman’s, who did not want to give up his life.

    I am surprised that Scientific American who prises accurate reportage and verfication of fact by observation and verified facts and data collection would stoop so low as to allow this reportage by this so called reporter…at best terminate her for not verifying the facts of the story and terminate her because by her actions she feeds the flames and racial hatred.

    Link to this
  39. 39. JRCancio 9:15 pm 03/28/2012

    And by-the-way, as Zimmerman was acting and recognized as a neighborhood watch person in this community and was recognized by the community as such; and performing actions in accepted practices to the community and the local police; Zimmerman was operating in an acceptable performance of his responsibilities and under the influence with his community and the local police.

    That can not be said for Trayvon and his tainted background and his proclivity of violence and law breaking. I would interpret this situation as a situation Trayvon thought he could get away with his violent and brutal attack only this time he guessed wrong. The way I see it; Good Guy 1, Bad Guy 0.

    Link to this
  40. 40. northernguy 10:53 pm 03/28/2012

    There is a gated community near where I live that is similar to the one where event in question happened. When out for a stroll I do not walk through it because it looks like the residents don’t want me there unless I have business there. I know if I did walk through there at night I would attract suspicion.

    I sometimes wear a sweater with a hood for those times of the year when weather might suddenly turn unpleasant. When I bought it I rejected the black version and chose a bright red one because of the image that I would project wearing a black sweater with the hood up at night. I certainly would never put the hood up on a pleasant night in Florida when I am walking through a neighborhood that has gone to considerable trouble to tell me that they don’t want strangers like me from walking through regardless of whether it’s legal.

    I have the legal right to wear what I want, when I want and to do so when walking where I want, as long as it is public property. But, and it’s a mighty big but, I do not want to generate anxiety, mistrust, suspicion and especially fear in strangers. I want the police or neighborhood watch to approach me for whatever assistance I can give, so I send signals indicating that. I want strangers to be reassured by my presence, not to have mild (or not so mild)feelings of hostility because of my appearance.

    I do this not because I am a better person in some way but simply because in my experience, life throws a lot less hassle my way when I conduct myself accordingly.

    When I see people who dress and act in a way that creates negative attitudes in observers simply because it gives them the satisfaction of being in control of other peoples reactions, I give them what they want. I make a negative judgment.

    My reaction to a threatening presentation of self is what we all do at some level. It’s just that I am aware of it and don’t try to deny it.

    All those flamers who are about to post about how terrible a reaction that is, miss the point of the little bit of science that comes through all the ill founded judgment that the author included in this article.

    Link to this
  41. 41. ytrriem 11:11 pm 03/28/2012

    what about training people with guns to shoot at the feet and legs of people they think might be a menace? Instead of at their chests or heads.

    Link to this
  42. 42. aldomat 11:22 pm 03/28/2012

    The experiment consists of two parts:

    (a) factual behaviour: is there a correlation between skin colour and wrong decision?

    (b) explanatory hypothesis: is it due to “racist bias” or is it “stereotype threat”? Here “racism” is essentially a self-declaration, based on an overt “self-narrative”.

    We cannot verify “self-narrative” against “actual behaviour” for this would require prior disambiguation between overt “racism” and “stereotype threat”, which is what we are trying to establish in the first place. We get into infinite regress. After reading STEELE I’m still puzzled about this line drawn in water between “self” and “others”.

    I’d be wary of using self-declarations to categorize people, simply because self-affirmation is so central to them that people will fabulate to secure it (“I’m not racist, some of my best friends are…”).

    Nazis changed their behaviour after Germany’s defeat faster than a loving squid. Were they born again universalists? Universalists waiting to come out? Victims of “stereotype threat”? People cowering to brute and absolute power? Victims of their Freudian unconscious (e.g. Heidegger)? I’m not sure we can neatly unravel this Gordian knot and assign responsibility as in: aX+bY=C.

    Let’s stick to the important insight: humans are exceedingly adaptive to covert and subliminal changes in the social environment.

    Link to this
  43. 43. Laird Wilcox 12:55 am 03/29/2012

    What is prejudiced and discriminatory is this article, which makes assumptions about the Hispanic man who was protecting himself from Trayvon Martin. The reason Martin was shot is that he was on top of Zimmerman and bashing his head on the concrete. Had Zimmerman not had a concealed carry license he might be dead from brain damage had Martin continued to beat his head on the concrete. Zimmerman could have been murdered and Martin would have been the murderer.

    Ms. Tannenbaum wrote this article well in advance of the facts of this case being in. She made prejudiced and bigoted assumptions based upon the race of the persons involved (apparently not aware that Zimmerman was a minority person himself). This is a typical rush to judgment in a case that may well wind up like the Tawana Brawley hoax or the Duke University hockey team hoax, where alleged black victims claimed they were harmed by racist whites.

    As for jumping to the conclusion that a black person in Trayvon’s circumstances might be armed, this may be a fear that other black people would be concerned about. Well documented statistics show that the most common victims of young black criminals are other black or minority people.

    Had Zimmerman not been legally armed his assailant may have killed or seriously injured him, and the criminal assailant would now have a gun to harm others with.

    Think about it: had the races (or in Zimmerman’s case, the assumed race) of these people been reversed the narrative may have run like this: “6 ft. tall young white thug shot while bashing a Black security guard’s head on the concrete during a violent hate assault. The assailant had a history of expulsion from school for drug possession and other disciplinary problems. The black guard, who wept after having to shoot in self-defense and has no history of racial animus, is being honored by his community for his brave action in resisting a racist attack.”

    Link to this
  44. 44. sprovetto 8:41 am 03/29/2012

    Melanie, Thanks for the thought provoking article and the cited 2002 study. I am a former police officer who now teaches and trains with police departments. We are in the midst of completing a disparity study and I have been tasked with developing diversity training for several police departments. Can you point me in the direction of more scholarly articles that explain how we are socialized, how we develop schemas, or any other angle that might get cops thinking that even though they don’t think they are biased……they may behave as one.
    Awesome work!
    Sonny Provetto, LICSW

    Link to this
  45. 45. JerryWood 10:02 am 03/29/2012

    sprovetto: you didnt ask me, but here are a few…focus on the fundamentals-

    1), arrive on scene where you focus on observing and reporting refernce points. no interpretations.

    2), ask questions from all witnessess. identify if subterfuge is present from the complaintant. sample: passive aggressive response, complaintant, earlier in the day, they had a hearing on a felony charge. where a perceived breach of “minimum” accepted standards by the suspect is now viewed as “greater”. (Pres.Obama’s Harvard Professor friend, arrested late at night, observed kicking in home front door. The arresting Officer never interviewed the complaintant.)

    3), Time clock, attempt to identify refernce points where the incident maybe measured thru the lens of time, to develop a time line. Sample: complaintant called 911 at what time, second 911 call…identify that specific event that prompted the call.

    4), What is Subterfuge was defined in the Manual for Court Martial. Here there was an attempt to Identify drug “users” within the Command, some models were focused in an attempt eliminate bias (alternative: perception of being a racist) from the Command. (not much thou, a single page.)

    5), Trial Court Judges-sign an order for all aggravating and mitigating statements to be surrendered to the Court. Here a Conflict exists for a City to surrender all statements: aggravating or mitigating. Sample: When the City has a rogue Officer, he’s identified as a rogue, but the City Attorney will want the suspect to prove his case in Court without the help of the Police Department. i.e. the suspect filed notarized complaints. City Attorney make a decision for the Police Department, “determine” to withhold a classification on notarized complaints untill their internal investigation has been completed. Passive/Aggressive response: to withhold working the complaint until after the suspects Trial date. To violate an administrative law in exchange for not assisting in a possible civil lawsuit against the City. (Just a few thoughts, perhaps your work group may come up with a definition on how complaints are viewed before the investigation is completed…is the statement…aggravating or mitigating. another thought, perhaps the Trial Judge requires some type of device that is more direct supervision to ensure compliance from municipal attorney(s).

    Link to this
  46. 46. JRCancio 10:58 am 03/29/2012

    There is this that sort of hit a very sour note,
    “However, if that turns out not to be accurate, there is still a larger point that remains – cultural stereotypes can influence our split-second judgments, even if we do not personally endorse them.” by Tannenbaum. I am a survivor of nine robberies in my life, May 10th, 1982 (Case file w/Bakersfield Police Department)is the one robbery I celebrate and for two reasons. First, it was the only time I was robbed by a white person, and after four armed robberies he did that day, a month later he was shot dead with ‘numerous bulltet wounds (39 hits) after another armed robbery. I am here precisely because cultural sterotype identification and biased pre-history earned by repeated robberies influenced my split-second responses and precisely three of those robberies those cultural sterotypes kept me alive. When one of those robberies a firearm was put in my mouth and my wife and children identified and threatened by name including providing me my home address; you learn to be alert because experience proves true the value of sterotypical cultural awareness particularly when that is the direction the threat comes from. What I took away from this article remains the biased method of explaining her studies that absolutely fails to report accurately the problem when viewing the roots of crime. Tannenbaum then also mis-reports the news of the day to better make the news fit to her benefit her presentation. Yes, I read the entire article.

    I remember once reading that in Chicago 70 percent of all prisoners in prison of the time were blacks and a large disportionate number and that fact was used to push the racial agenda of the reportage; reportage that failed to understand the blacks in prison were not in prison because they were black they were in prison because of the crimes they committed which has nothing to do with their race.

    And she is right, my split second judgement has kept me alive, remember I am the good guy, and not the aggressor but a person who is willing to defend himself and had to make split second decisions to remain alive. The black idiots who robbed me never realized until to late my split second judgement was enhanced with the mechanisms of self defense training with and without firearms. Please note I did not say Mexicans, or Chinese, or Japanese, or Canadians robbed me I said blacks. That statement is not racist it is accurate reportage and reportage of the actual experiences I faced in real life and not some made up biased information to push my agenda.

    Tannenbaum further states, “Cultural stereotypes can become automatically activated and applied to our behaviors even when we don’t actually endorse them; the sheer knowledge that these stereotypes exist can be enough to influence our judgments, especially when it comes to split-second decisions”. And those sterotypes automatically kept me alive. What is the problem? And the problem is racial and black committing crimes, deal with it!

    Link to this
  47. 47. wscovel 4:26 pm 03/30/2012

    This study has a number of potential flaws that would be important to investigate before any conclusions are drawn.
    I have a question, for example, about the make-up of the students in this experiment.
    Were whites, blacks, orientals, etc involved in the student population?
    If they were equally represented in the sampling, a key finding would be whether there was a (%) differences, if any, in their responses. That is, under the same conditions, does the data show that a white person would shoot a black person at a higher rate than a black person would shoot a black person?

    Link to this
  48. 48. BuckSkinMan 8:11 pm 03/30/2012

    Was Zimmerman’s action legitimate self defense or was it not? That’s the fundamental question: one which has NOT been fully investigated and one which we cannot answer without credible facts about the incident.

    The 2002 Correll study really bears on one matter: the human ability to assess threats. UNTRAINED individuals do more poorly in this area than trained individuals. Also, actual experience in dealing with threats colors our perception of threats. Whites who grow up in predominantly white communities will tend to react more rationally in response to threats by other whites, while the Stranger Factor inclines these people to be more nervous in the presence of blacks. So the study is valid, but it’s not about racism per se: it’s about these other factors involving training and environmental / experiential factors.

    Like all vertebrates, humans evolved (and survived) partly based on their alertness and threat assessment capabilities. Now we have Science and experts to help us refine our defensive capabilities. Even a person who’s fairly well trained in self defense will know NOT to pursue potential threats. Rather, one thinks tactically to avoid such proximity. In other words, threat avoidance should be the first principle of self defense, whether or not one is armed with a handgun.

    Defensive shooting is a very big subject, this article isn’t even close to being a complete coverage. It’s just another chance to gain insight and move forward versus sticking with “what we know”– which turns out to be wrong much too often.

    Link to this
  49. 49. shiningelectron 10:58 pm 03/30/2012

    Melanie Tannenbaum unfortunately is falling victim to racial profiling. There has been no conclusive investigation as of yet and she is instantly assuming Zimmerman’s guilt with her statement that Zimmerman simply approached and shot Martin. If she was there that night, she should immediately contact the Sanford Police Deptment to offer her first-person account. It would be the correct and proper thing to do. Even psychology majors are not immune from racially driven errors in thinking.

    As for the video game results she presents, a quick perusal of FBI staistics will show some very disturbing statistics regarding black vilolence data. Blacks are 18X more likely to attack a white than the reverse. Wikipedia – Crime In The United States:
    “As of 2005, statistics show that offending rates for blacks were more than 7 times higher than the rates for whites.” Check out the graphs comparing crime amongst blacks vs non-blacks. Is it horrific, to say the least.

    Non-blacks instinctively know these numbers and statistical propensity for black violence. As a matter of survival instinct, they rightly determine that Hoodies, skin color and time of day at a 7-Eleven all combine to raise the hairs on the backs of non-blacks. This is wholly natural and to asign “racist” to these natural responses is, in itself, a racist position. The results of her video game are perfectly understandable in light of presnt day black cultural problems that remain unaddressed by poverty pimps like the Jesse Sharpton Twins.

    Link to this
  50. 50. JerryWood 10:03 am 03/31/2012

    What does it all mean, The Tannenbaum article: a few years ago, Pres.Obama’s friend, Harvard Prof. arrived at his home late at night, and could not find his keys…kicking in his front door. a neighbor called 911. When the Police arrived, they interviewed the suspect, later arrested him. In doing the arrest the Police never interviewed the complaintant.

    Ques: was that simple act to interview the complainant relevant to what the Professor was charged with? (dont recall the incident, but basically the Prof. became irritated by the Officer and followed him outside of his house yammer on…verbally.)

    Answer: yes, it was relevant. Why: Interviewing the complainant could give reassurance to the suspect that your following good procedures and remain unbiased. Looking back at the incident, at first glance, it resembles a legal entrapment. (To remove this will require investigation)

    Where the perception of bias, (To not interview the complaintant) could create a criminal from someone whom normally conforms to the rules of society. Whereas, Upon the Prof. arrest is viewed as someone not conforming.


    Link to this
  51. 51. Rabe 7:55 am 04/2/2012

    This article suggests that never more Trayvon cases implies deep cultural changes.
    Yeah let’s chage our civilization !
    It’s like the financial crisis and the global warming.
    Let’s go, first we change our economic obligations, then our consumption habits, then our culture and then the way we see each others, LoL.
    Another less expensive solution is to let goldman sachs
    invest in milicia, it will solve the milicia’s officer dilemma because only the best would be hired, then we can build a crime trading infrastructure with AA+ and BBB minority reports …
    (ok, it sound like an oprah postraumatic growth mindset : I realize I can kill them better)

    Link to this
  52. 52. Rabe 8:59 am 04/2/2012

    LoL again :
    Many countries dont want their ethnic/crime statistics to be published because it cannot be fairly used by the lay man (like the Darth Vader ultimate theory in sciam).
    So let a bipartisan endeavour against this obstacle to progress. I suggest it to be lead by ultracapitalists acquainted with mathematical manipulations…but with a successfull evangelical christian background of course (yes that exists, LoL).

    Link to this
  53. 53. Bora Zivkovic 9:03 am 04/2/2012

    I see we got some racist commenters here, who, due to their own proclivities, fell for errors and even pure fakery by the rightwing sites – see and for some fact-checking and debunking. Since those comments violate our Terms of Use, I may go through them a little later and delete the worst offenders.

    Link to this
  54. 54. JohnSmith57 11:15 pm 04/9/2012

    I’m still amazed that a magazine like Scientific American lends its name to this kind of tripe. Pretty low standards for a magazine that touts its having won the 2011 National Magazine Award for General Excellence.

    Link to this

Add a Comment
You must sign in or register as a member to submit a comment.

More from Scientific American

Email this Article