Reports by some media outlets and community outreach organizations that track and document police violence demonstrate that more than any other demographic group, young black males may be at a particularly heightened risk of fatal police encounters.
To shed light on the issue, one approach taken by psychologists and neuroscientists has been to investigate potential behavioral and intrinsic brain-based biases when perceiving black vs. white faces.
One notable study (B. Keith Payne, 2001) reports that brief displays of black vs white faces as racial cues can actually “prime” a quicker response to weapons or items of danger.
The same manipulation increases misidentification of tools as weapons for black, relative to white, face cues. This occurs even if the face cue was flashed so quickly that the participant doesn’t even know it was there.
These findings point to race as an important construct that drives perception, which may, at least in part, drive the actions taken by law enforcement.
Our research asks an additional question. Are these types of relationships dependent, or even enhanced, based on the emotional state of the subject making quick decisions?
To investigate the effects of race and emotional context on face perception, our study used black and white faces as stimuli in a functional MRI task (emotional go/no-go task) designed to study impulse control in black and white young adults.
Three emotional contexts were induced in participants: rewarding, threatening, or neutral contexts.
Behaviorally, participants exhibited greater impulsive actions (more false alarms) to black faces, which was enhanced in threat contexts. This finding was paralleled in the brain. Brain patterns revealed increased functional MRI activity for black faces in threatening contexts, as opposed to few face differences in neutral and rewarding contexts.
Our results demonstrate the importance of emotional context as an important factor that influences race perception, and subsequent decision-making. Such findings should assist in ongoing efforts to increase awareness of race disparities in law enforcement and ultimately a reduction in preventable violent encounters.
Binyam Nardos is a post-doctoral researcher with Dr. Damien Fair in Behavioral Neuroscience. His research uses behavioral and functional MRI techniques to understand how face perception is influenced by race and socioemotional context.
This research was funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Law and Neuroscience.
A manuscript with our findings is in preparation and includes the following authors.
Nardos, B.2, Rubien-Thomas, E.1, Cohen, A.O.8, Schifsky, E.E. 2, Li, A.3, Cervera, A.1, Lowery, A.1, Dellarco, D.V.4, Rheinschmidt-Same, M.5, Daumeyer, N.1, Camp, N.6, Hughes, B.L.9, Taylor-Thompson, K.A.7, Eberhardt, J.L.6, Fair, D.A.2, Richeson, J.A.1, Casey, BJ1,3, and Fair, DA2
1Department of Psychology, Yale University, New Haven, CT; 2Department of Behavioral Neuroscience, Oregon Health & Science University, Portland, OR; 3Sackler Institute for Developmental Psychobiology, Weill Cornell Medical College, New York, NY; 4Department of Psychology, University of Miami, Miami, FL; 5Department of Psychology, Northwestern University, Chicago, IL; 5Department of Psychology, Northwestern University, Chicago, IL; 6Department of Psychology, Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA; 7New York University School of Law, New York, NY, 8Department of Psychology, New York University, New York, NY, 9Department of Psychology, University of California Riverside, Riverside, CA