The Situationist

New Research on the Dangers of Private Law Enforcement

Posted by Adam Benforado on March 22, 2012

In my last post on the Trayvon Martin shooting, I suggested that the dispositionist narratives being offered by many in the media might be missing the real story of why this tragedy happened.  Indeed, it might come down to “a toxic combination of negative stereotypes (linking blacks and crime) and a culture increasingly encouraging private law enforcement.”  (The focus of this law review article.)

This suggests that the debate taking place over the case perhaps ought to be shifted to the implicit biases of private citizens engaged in “policing” activities.  To this end, I thought it was worth introducing some fascinating new research by Jessica Witt and James Brockmole to be published in the upcoming issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance.  According to a Notre Dame press release focused on the paper,

Wielding a gun increases a person’s bias to see guns in the hands of others, new research from the University of Notre Dame shows.

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In five experiments, subjects were shown multiple images of people on a computer screen and determined whether the person was holding a gun or a neutral object such as a soda can or cell phone. Subjects did this while holding either a toy gun or a neutral object such as a foam ball.

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The researchers varied the situation in each experiment — such as having the people in the images sometimes wear ski masks, changing the race of the person in the image or changing the reaction subjects were to have when they perceived the person in the image to hold a gun. Regardless of the situation the observers found themselves in, the study showed that responding with a gun biased observers to report “gun present” more than did responding with a ball. Thus, by virtue of affording the subject the opportunity to use a gun, he or she was more likely to classify objects in a scene as a gun and, as a result, to engage in threat-induced behavior, such as raising a firearm to shoot.

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“Beliefs, expectations and emotions can all influence an observer’s ability to detect and to categorize objects as guns,” Brockmole says. “Now we know that a person’s ability to act in certain ways can bias their recognition of objects as well, and in dramatic ways. It seems that people have a hard time separating their thoughts about what they perceive and their thoughts about how they can or should act.”

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The researchers showed that the ability to act is a key factor in the effects by showing that simply letting observers see a nearby gun did not influence their behavior; holding and using the gun was important.

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“One reason we supposed that wielding a firearm might influence object categorization stems from previous research in this area, which argues that people perceive the spatial properties of their surrounding environment in terms of their ability to perform an intended action,” Brockmole says.

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For example, other research has shown that people with broader shoulders tend to perceive doorways to be narrower, and softball players with higher batting averages perceive the ball to be bigger. The blending of perception and action representations could explain, in part, why people holding a gun would tend to assume others are, too.

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. . . .

All of this raises the possibility that the tragic shootings of unarmed men like Trayvon might reflect the mistaken determination by the shooters that the victim posed a lethal threat caused, in part, by the simple act of the shooter carrying a gun.

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