After Trayvon: The science of protecting innocent black men

Even though the death of Trayvon Martin drew much public attention in the last year and a half, the shooting of an unarmed, innocent black male is in no way an isolated case in America. Jonathan Ferrell, a 24-year-old African-American man in Florida, was recently killed by police officers when he was looking for help after crashing his car. Roy Middleton, a 60-year-old Florida man, was crippled after the sheriff’s deputies mistook him for a car thief and shot him 15 times in his own driveway. Omar Edwards, an African-American policeman, was shot in Harlem by another officer who mistook him for a car thief. And Jordan Davis, 17, was shot and killed by a 45-year-old man who said he felt threatened in an argument at a gas station. 

None of these incidents involved any blatant signs of racial hatred. But it’s safe to assume that these men would not have been deemed a threat had they been white. Even in an age where an African-American man can be elected leader of the USA, black men and boys are seen as suspicious and given no benefit of the doubt.  All too often, that results in their deaths at the hands of weapon-equipped individuals who think they’re protecting themselves, their loved ones, or—in the case of the police—the public. 

Psychologists have spent decades trying to understand the roots of racial and ethnic prejudice.  But Martin’s death in 2012 has focused that empirical interest on the reasons that police and civilians are so quick to kill innocent black men and boys whom they regard as simply “looking” suspicious. (Mays, Johnson, Coles, Gellene & Cochran, 2013).  Developing ways to help people overcome those automatic and usually unfounded suspicions is a bit more challenging. 

People have an innate need to categorize the world, often unconsciously (Roets & Van Hiel, 2011).  We tend to assign properties to those categories, and that can lead to stereotyping and prejudice.  People who need to make quick judgments will assess a new person based on what they already believe about their category. 

Many of these swift assessments are identified in the famed Implicit Association Test (IAT) invented by Anthony Greenwald in the 1990’s.  He and longtime collaborator Mahzarin Banaji of Harvard University, have found that at least 70 percent of people who take an IAT test that associated weapons with ethnicity, equated blacks with weapons. This was especially true among whites and Asians, although even African-Americans showed a modest stereotype against their own racial group.

This generalization obviously ties black men to crime and dangerousness. (Eberhardt, Goff, Purdie & Davies, 2004). These emotional biases register in a fraction of a second, and can be triggered even in people who perceive themselves as not racist (Devine, 1989; Bodenhausen & Richeson, 2010). 

In a 2003 study, Northwestern University researchers tested their theory that implicit prejudice biases people’s perceptions of the facial emotion displayed by others. The researchers showed to white men and women computer-based faces of both black and white men morphing from anger to happiness, or vice versa. At some point during that transition, the expressions on the computerized faces became ambiguous. The participants then completed tasks designed to measure both explicit and implicit attitudes about race. They discovered that people who were found to have higher implicit (but not explicit) prejudice were quicker to perceive anger in black faces, but neither form of bias affected perceptions of anger in white faces (Hugenberg & Bodenhausen, 2003).  This suggests that the damaging effects of stereotypes may take hold extremely early on in the social interactions that people engage in.

These reactions can have lethal consequences. Keith Payne, of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, showed in a laboratory experiment that people who embrace stereotypic beliefs are more likely to mistake a harmless hand tool for a gun when the face of a black man flashes before their eyes on a computer screen.  And in studies mimicking how police deal with criminal suspects, University of Colorado psychologists have demonstrated that police officers, community members, and students playing a video game will shoot an armed black man faster than they’ll shoot an armed white man, and are faster at avoiding shooting an unarmed white man than an unarmed black man (Correll, Park, Judd & Wittenbrink, 2002).  

Psychology offers some hope by identifying remedies to these automatic emotions and biases. Cognitive strategies may possibly be used to control automatic prejudiced feelings and reactions in favor of controlled egalitarian processes (Bodenhausen & Richeson, 2010). This is similar to the manner in which police are trained to try to react to what they actually see and not what they may imagine in their minds.

One strategy that shows promise is perspective-taking.—the active attempt to imagine the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of someone else. In several experiments, for example, a research team led by Andrew R. Todd found that participants who adopted the perspective of black individuals showed, in subsequent evaluations, more positive automatic interracial attitudes. (Todd, Bodenhausen, Richeson, Galinsky, 2011).Simple interracial interaction can also play a big role in reducing knee-jerk fear and violence. Intergroup contact and friendships work well (and often best) among intolerant and cognitively rigid persons—by reducing threat and anxiety and increasing empathy, trust, and out-group closeness (Hodson, 2011). In a field experiment conducted in a college dormitory system, white freshmen who were paired with African-American roommates reported less satisfaction and involvement with their roommates than did participants in same-race rooms.   However, automatically activated racial attitudes and intergroup anxiety improved over time among students in interracial rooms, but not among students in same-race rooms (Shook & Fazio, 2008). 

The Common In-group Identity Model, developed by Samuel L. Gaertner of the University of Delaware, and John F. Dovidio at the University of Connecticut, argues that instead of fighting the tendency of people to establish in-groups and out-groups, people can be induced to broaden their categories, ultimately perhaps to join super categories, such as an in-group of living things, and an out-group of inanimate objects. This does not require that people abandon their original in-group, but rather to acknowledge a kind of super-group to which in-group and out-group members belong, creating a dual identity.

But the ultimate remedy may be something found by a large group of researchers who entered a contest, instigated in 2012 by Calvin Lai and Brian Nosek of the University of Virginia. The pair challenged their colleagues to evaluate various ways to neutralize stereotypes. All the scientist teams submitted 18 interventions that were tested an average of 2.22 times each in three studies, with rules for retaining or revising interventions between studies.

Teaching people about the injustice of discrimination or asking them to be empathetic toward others was found to be ineffective. Instead, providing volunteers with "counter-stereotypical" messages seemed most effective, the results showed. Among the most potent interventions were those that linked black people with positive attributes.  

These linkages are enhanced by public figures. Indeed, a 2009 study led by social psychologist Ashby Plant showed that the high visibility of Barack Obama during his 2008 election campaign dramatically decreased levels of implicit anti-Black prejudice and stereotyping among non-Black study participants compared with pre-election levels.  

Scientist’s efforts to nullify stereotypes could ultimately douse our people’s automatic wariness of African-American men and—ultimately—save many lives. 



Banaji, M. R., Greenwald, A. G. (2013). Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People, Delacorte Press.

Bodenhausen, G. V., Richeson, J. A. (2010). Prejudice, stereotyping, and discrimination. In: Baumeister, R. F., Finkel, E.J., (Eds.), Advanced social psychology: The state of science. (pp. 341–383). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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, 1314-1329.

Correll, J., Park, B., Judd, C. M., Wittenbrink, B., Sadler, M. S., & Keesee, T. (2007). Across the thin blue line: Police officers and racial bias in the decision to shoot. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 92, 1006-1023.

Devine PG. (1989). Stereotypes and prejudice: Their automatic and controlled components. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 56, 5–18.

Eberhardt, J. L., Goff, P.A., Purdie, V.J., Davies, P. G. (2004). Seeing black: Race, crime, and visual processing. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87, 876–893.

Gaertner, S. L., & Dovidio, J. F. (2000). Reducing intergroup bias: The common ingroup identity model. Philadelphia, PA: Psychology Press.

Hodson, G. (2011). Do ideologically intolerant people benefit from intergroup contact? Current Directions in Psychological Science, 20, 154.

Hugenberg, K., Bodenhausen, G. V., (2003). Facing prejudice: Implicit prejudice and the perception of facial threat. Psychological Science, 14, 640-643. 

Lai, C. K., Marini, M., Lehr, S. A., Cerruti, C., Shin, J. E. L., Joy-Gaba, J., Ho, A. K., Teachman, B. A., Wojcik, S. P., Koleva, S., Frazier, R. S., Heiphetz, L., Chen, E., Turner, R. N., Haidt, J., Kesebir, S., Hawkins, C. B., Sartori, G., Schaefer, H. S., Rubichi, S., Dial, C. M., Sriram, N., Banaji, M. R., Nosek, B. A., (2013). Reducing Implicit Racial Preferences: I. A Comparative Investigation of 18 Interventions. Available at SSRN: or

Lebrecht, S., Pierce, L.J., Tarr, M.J., Tanaka, J.W. (2009). Perceptual Other-Race Training Reduces Implicit Racial Bias. PLoS ONE 4(1): e4215. 

Mays, V. M., Johnson, D., Coles, C.N., Gellene, D., Cochran, S. D. (2013). Using the Science of Psychology to Target Perpetrators of Racism and Race-Based Discrimination For Intervention Efforts: Preventing Another Trayvon Martin Tragedy. Journal of Social Action in Counseling and Psychology, 5, 11-36.

Payne, B. (2001). Prejudice and perception: The role of automatic and controlled processes in misperceiving a weapon. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81, 181–192.

Payne, B., Lambert, A. J., Jacoby, L. L. (2002). Best laid plans: Effects of goals on accessibility bias and cognitive control in race-based misperceptions of weapons. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 38, 384–396.

Plant, E., Devine, P. G., Cox, W. L., Columb, C., Miller, S. L., Goplen, J., Peruche, B. (2009). The Obama effect: Decreasing implicit prejudice and stereotyping. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45, 961–964.

Roets, A., Van Heil, A. (2011). Allport’s Prejudiced personality today: Need for closure as the motivated cognitive basis of prejudice. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 20, 349.

Shook, N. J., Fazio, R. H., (2008). Interracial roommate relationships: an experimental field test of the contact hypothesis. Psychological Science, 19, 717.

Todd, A. R., Bodenhausen, G. V., Richeson, J. A., Galinsky, A. D. (2011). Perspective taking combats automatic expressions of racial bias. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100, 1027-42.