Meta-analysis corroborates racial shooter bias

Lay summary by Fabia Hogden

People are faster to respond “shoot” to an armed black person and slower to respond “not shoot” to an unarmed black person compared to white persons. The threshold to “shoot” is also lower for black than for white persons and this bias is greater in states with more permissive gun laws.

Unjustified shootings of people from ethnic minorities have recently been hotly discussed in the media. Researchers have designed laboratory shooter tasks to understand this phenomenon. An often-reported finding from these tasks is that participants decide to “shoot” unarmed black persons more often and faster than unarmed white persons. This is referred to as “racial shooter bias”. Although this bias has been investigated for more than a decade its genuineness has repeatedly been called into question.

Therefore Yara Mekawi and Konrad Bresin from the University of Illinois have reanalyzed 42 studies investigating the racial shooter bias. Combining all studies, they observed that participants on average responded “shoot” to armed black persons faster and “not shoot” to unarmed black persons slower than white equivalents. Participants in general also had a greater tendency to respond “shoot” to black persons than white ones. They did not, however, falsely “shoot” unarmed black targets more often than unarmed white targets. Moreover, they were able to separate armed from unarmed persons equally well for black and white targets. The bias in the tendency to “shoot” was more pronounced in studies that were conducted in states with permissive gun laws. Erroneously “shooting” unarmed black targets was also more frequent in these states.

Synthesizing years of social psychological research, this meta-analysis shows that the racial shooter bias in reaction times is a genuine phenomenon. The authors argue that their results provide an important starting point to design interventions to reduce the occurrence of shootings of unarmed people from ethnic minorities. They, furthermore, underline that future research needs to further clarify the role of state-level gun laws in the racial shooter bias.

For further information

Read the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology original research article which this summary is based on Is the evidence from racial bias shooting task studies a smoking gun? Results from a meta-analysis (November 2015).

Visit the profile of the research ambassador, Fabia Hogden, who wrote this summary.

STM Digest is a collection of lay summaries published next to original research articles on ScienceDirect, provided free of charge, and accessible to everyone.

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated STM Digest’s story.