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


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.

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

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