Cultural stereotypes can influence perceptions, judgments,
and behavior, even if these stereotypes do not necessarily
reflect personal beliefs.
In February 1999, Amadou Diallo, a 22-year-old West African
immigrant, was shot in the doorway of his apartment building
by four plain clothes police officers searching a Bronx, New
York neighborhood for a rape suspect. When the officers ordered
him not to move, Diallo reached into his pants pocket. Believing
he was reaching for a gun, the officers fired a total of 41
shots, 19 of which hit and killed Diallo, who turned out to
be unarmed. All four officers were later acquitted of wrongdoing
in the case.
Would the police officers have responded differently if Diallo
had been white? Perhaps the order to freeze would have been
repeated. A slight delay in the decision to fire would have
given the officers time to recognize that Diallo was not reaching
for a gun.
The questions raised by the Diallo shooting were a catalyst
for the study, "The Police Officer's Dilemma: Using Ethnicity
to Disambiguate Potentially Threatening Individuals,"
by University of Chicago Professor Bernd Wittenbrink, and
Joshua Correll, Bernadette Park, and Charles M. Judd of the
University of Colorado at Boulder.
The authors analyzed the shoot/don't shoot decision facing
police officers using a simplified videogame. The videogame
roughly simulates the situation of a police officer who is
confronted with an ambiguous, but potentially hostile, target.
In the videogame experiment, images of men who are armed
with a gun or carrying an innocuous object (such as a cell
phone), and who are either African-American or white, appear
unexpectedly in a variety of contexts. Participants were told
to "shoot" armed targets and to "not shoot"
unarmed targets. The experiment recorded participants' responses
and the speed with which they made their decisions.
The goal was to investigate the effect of a target's ethnicity
on participants' decisions to shoot that target.
In the speed of the participants' responses and the errors
they made, the authors find that the target's ethnicity does
indeed affect the decision to shoot.
Participants more often incorrectly decided to shoot an unarmed
target when he was African-American than when he was white.
At the same time, they more often failed to respond with a
"shoot" decision when the armed target was white
than when he was African-American. Likewise, participants'
response speed also showed the influence of ethnicity on the
ease with which these decisions can be made. Participants
made the correct decision to shoot an armed target faster
if the target was African-American than if he was white, but
decided not to shoot an unarmed target more quickly if he
was white, than if he was African-American.
Although the differences due to the target's ethnicity are
not large, they are stable, and the authors have found these
results repeatedly across several experiments with participants
from varying backgrounds. For example, the authors find the
same pattern of results in experiments conducted with both
African-American and white participants, as well as with a
group of active-duty police officers who took part in one
of the experiments.
In addition, the effects of target ethnicity occur even though
participants in the experiments are motivated to make accurate
decisions. That is, the videogame awarded points based on
participants' performance. For each correct decision, participants
received points, and for each mistake they were penalized
with a point deduction.
At the end of the experiment, participants were paid according
to their total score in the game.
Can social psychology explain this pattern of results? The
authors argue that the answer can be found in the accessibility
of cultural stereotypes linking African-Americans and violence.
Stereotypic descriptions of what various groups of people
are presumably like are a common part of social life. They
may be perpetuated by the news media, in advertising, or through
other cultural influences.
Prior research by Wittenbrink and his colleagues has shown
that such culturally dominant stereotypes can be activated
in the brain automatically. This activation is part of the
early stages of information processing by which people make
sense of the things they encounter in their environment.
In the same way that people use certain features of an object
to classify it instantaneously as, for example, a chair, they
also quickly classify their social environment based on available
cues. The processing is habitual, occurring without any intention
or awareness, and it operates very rapidly. For example, in
the case of the chair, unless it is a very unusual looking
chair, people do not consciously have to search for information
in order to classify it accordingly. Instead, this classification,
and the inferences of the object's characteristics implied
by the classification, are made effortlessly, without deliberation,
and are readily available. They are activated automatically.
The classification of people and the activation of related
associations occur in the same fashion.
Wittenbrink notes that in principle, people's ability to
quickly activate relevant information and to readily understand
what a particular thing is and how to respond to it can be
quite useful. In fact, people would not be able to function
otherwise. However, there are times when this automatic activation
can be dysfunctional because the activated information is
The automatic activation of cultural stereotypes can be misleading
in this way, because it can influence behavior even when people
reject the stereotype as inaccurate or irrelevant to a particular
decision. Such influences are particularly likely to occur
in situations where a person cannot correct an automatic response
with the input from objective information-either because they
do not have enough time to consider this information, or because
objective information is not readily available.
"What we are studying is a basic feature of how the
brain automatically interprets information that we encounter
in our social environment, and how these mechanisms impact
decision making," says Wittenbrink.
In the videogame, anyone can potentially determine whether
the target is actually holding a gun if given enough time,
but when given less than a second to respond, the cultural
stereotype which associates African-Americans with violence
automatically impacts the participant's response.
Not Limited to Race
As suggested by this research, cultural stereotypes can have
effects that are truly unintended. Participants in the videogame
experiments were motivated to make accurate decisions, and
theoretically the ethnicity of the target should have been
irrelevant. Nevertheless, the participants, even those who
are African-American, could not prevent the cultural stereotype
from influencing their decisions.
Although the experiments document these unintended influences
in a very specific context where life and death decisions
are involved, they demonstrate a much more general effect
of cultural stereotypes on judgment and behavior. Cultural
stereotypes about African-Americans are not limited to issues
of violence, but include other attributes. Moreover, pervasive
cultural stereotypes also extend to other ethnic groups, and
exist for other social categories such as gender, or nationality.
To the extent that any of these stereotypes are well learned,
they can have similar unintended influences.
"The basic effect that cultural stereotypes can inadvertently,
and without our knowledge, influence behaviors and appraisals
is relevant to many everyday situations, including job interviews,
meetings with clients, or interactions with colleagues,"