There are two men. They have nearly identical bodies, with close to the same height and weight. Which one is larger? Which one is more threatening? Which one could do more harm to you?
Most people would probably think to answer “neither,” since both men are the same size.
But according to a new series of studies published by the American Psychological Association, a person’s answer to these questions depends largely on the men’s race — and that, researchers warn, may lead people to justify greater use of force against black men compared to their white counterparts.
What the studies found
The seven studies, conducted by researchers John Paul Wilson, Nicholas Rule, and Kurt Hugenberg, used a series of tests to get people to link people of different races to different body sizes and the potential meaning of those body sizes.
In six of the studies, hundreds of participants were tasked with connecting a man’s face to body size, the potential harm a man could inflict, and whether use of force against that man would be justified in case of an altercation. In the seventh study, participants were asked to estimate a headless male body’s size based on a color-inverted picture (to remove racial identifiers), but some participants were primed to believe — through a stereotypically black or white name or through a picture of a person’s face — that the body picture was of a white man while others were primed to believe it’s a black man.
Throughout all these tests, researchers produced the same results: When participants believed the man in the images is black, they generally saw the man as larger, more threatening, and potentially more harmful in an altercation than a white person. And they were more likely to say use of force was justified against the black men than the white men.
Again, the men in these pictures were roughly the same size. One of the studies in the series even made sure the men even had similar bench press records. Yet identical and similar bodies were often equated as larger and more threatening strictly because the man was perceived as black instead of white.
The researchers argued that this was the result of stereotypes about black men being larger than white men. And, they pointed out, these stereotypes aren’t true: “The 2012 Center for Disease Control report on summarizing the 2007–2010 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey data places the average height of non-Hispanic White men (20 years or older) at 177.4 cm and 90.4 kgs, and of non-Hispanic Black men at 176.4 cm and 90.4 kgs.”
Yet these stereotypes have serious consequences if they alter people’s perceptions of black and white men. Consider the 2014 Cleveland police shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice: After he was killed, the officers involved reported that they thought Rice was 20. While it’s impossible to get into these cops’ heads to see what they were thinking, it’s possible they genuinely believed Rice was older because they saw Rice as bigger than he really was. This series of studies certainly suggests that’s a possibility.
One caveat to the study: It drew participants from Amazon’s MTurk, a work-for-pay service. Previous analyses have found that use of this system can skew participants so they’re more college-educated, younger, and less wealthy than the general population, so the study participants may not be fully representative of the rest of the country.
There’s also questions, the researchers said, about how exactly their findings would apply outside of a lab setting, and if the restricted range of men’s sizes that they tested for — since the researchers relied largely on pictures of high school athletes — could impact participants’ perceptions compared to if, say, they were looking at the bodies or faces of nonathletic or older men.
But this is a kind of research finding we’ve seen again and again: Black Americans are often associated with threatening behavior, particularly crime. And that may explain some of the disparities we see in police shootings.
Studies have consistently found evidence of racism in America
As part of a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2014, researchers studied 176 mostly white, male police officers, and tested them to see if they held an unconscious “dehumanization bias” against black people by having them match photos of people with photos of big cats or apes. Researchers found that officers commonly dehumanized black people, and those who did were most likely to be the ones with a history of using force on black children in custody.
In the same study, researchers interviewed 264 mostly white, female college students and found that they tended to perceive black children ages 10 and older as “significantly less innocent” than their white counterparts.
“Children in most societies are considered to be in a distinct group with characteristics such as innocence and the need for protection,” Philip Goff, an author of the study, said in a statement. “Our research found that black boys can be seen as responsible for their actions at an age when white boys still benefit from the assumption that children are essentially innocent.”
Other research suggests there can be superhumanization bias at work as well, with white people more likely to associate paranormal or magical powers with black people than with white people. And the more they associate magical powers with black people, the less likely they are to believe black people feel pain.
Another study found people tend to associate what the authors call “black-sounding names,” like DeShawn and Jamal, with larger, more violent people than they do “white-sounding names,” like Connor and Garrett.
“I’ve never been so disgusted by my own data,” Colin Holbrook, the lead author of the study, said in a statement. “The amount that our study participants assumed based only on a name was remarkable. A character with a black-sounding name was assumed to be physically larger, more prone to aggression, and lower in status than a character with a white-sounding name.”
This is just a small sampling of the overall research. But no matter how these kinds of studies are conducted, there’s a clear bias going on: Many Americans tend to associate black people with criminal behavior and violence. And that seems to lead to biased behavior.
These biases help explain racial disparities in police shootings
An analysis of the available FBI data by Dara Lind for Vox found that US police kill black people at disproportionate rates: Black people accounted for 31 percent of police killing victims in 2012, even though they made up just 13 percent of the US population. Although the data is incomplete because it's based on voluntary reports from police agencies around the country, it highlights the vast disparities in how police use force.
Some of these disparities are explained by socioeconomic factors — such as poverty, unemployment, segregation, and neglect by the police when it comes to serious crimes — that lead to more crime and violence in black communities. As a result, police tend to be more present in black neighborhoods — and therefore may be more likely to take policing actions, from traffic stops to arrests to shootings, in these areas.
But these structural disparities don’t appear to explain everything. A 2015 study by researcher Cody Ross found, “There is no relationship between county-level racial bias in police shootings and crime rates (even race-specific crime rates), meaning that the racial bias observed in police shootings in this data set is not explainable as a response to local-level crime rates.” That suggests that perhaps other factors are involved in the disparities seen for these shootings, including racial bias.
Indeed, the series of studies published by the American Psychological Association show that stereotypes of black men’s bodies as larger and more threatening appear to lead people to justifying more use of force against black men. That unfortunately may offer some insight into the disparities seen in police shootings.