Shoot or don’t shoot? How race can trigger your decision to pull the trigger

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by Jeremy Rogalski / KHOU 11 News I-Team

khou.com

Posted on November 1, 2013 at 7:18 AM

Updated Friday, Nov 1 at 1:28 PM

Even if you don’t think of yourself as racist, researchers have found you're still likely to have a racial bias—a bias that in some cases, could have deadly consequences.

How do they know?

They’ve put thousands of participants through a computer game that’s really a scientific test. It’s called the “Shooter Effect.”

The test subject sits in front of a computer screen. On it is a picture of a scene, anything from a university courtyard to a downtown parking lot.

Suddenly a figure appears in the setting holding either a gun or some innocent object like a cell phone or a wallet. Using the computer’s mouse, participants try as fast as possible to “shoot” the characters holding a gun or “don’t shoot” those not holding a weapon.

In the process, something beyond accuracy is measured.

"It's kind of a shocking demonstration of something that we wish were not true,” said Joshua Correll, a University of Colorado-Boulder Psychology professor who invented the game.

Correll says test takers “often think they're doing one thing, and they are, but they’re also doing things that they’re not aware of."

For example: the I-Team used the “game” to test Houston area residents. Afterward, most replied they were focusing on the character’s hands during the game, looking for whether the object was in fact a weapon.

But Correll said subconsciously, they were picking up cues about the race of the characters in the game, and linking it to a particular stereotype:

“Black people are more likely to be associated with violence, crime and threat than white people," said Correll.

He said it's an assumption fueled by movies, music and television—including local TV news. And the effect on behavior? After thousands have played his game, Professor Correll said the trend was clear—unarmed black characters in the game were more likely to be shot than unarmed whites by a margin of 35 percent.

"Black targets are associated with threat,” said Correll. “It doesn't matter whether you believe it, it's there in your mind, it's even in the minds of black people, so when we test black participants, they show racial bias,” he said.

Our first group of test-takers at Memorial Park were sure surprised by their test scores, like Ben Shepherd, who shot three unarmed African-American characters.

“I don't know, it's pretty, pretty interesting results," Shepherd said.

Shepherd is not a gun owner, but others we tested are. At Tactical Firearms, a Katy gun range, Joe Whitney shot an unarmed black character too.

“And it's my fault, I should have paid more attention," Whitney said.

Test-taker Paul Speer said something similar.

"It's just that I made a mistake, I made a mistake,” Speer said.

But Correll said even if someone doesn’t make a mistake, the time it takes to react to a character in the test also can show racial bias.

“Participants are more likely to fast shoot an armed black target. If the black guy has got a gun they shoot him like that, if it's a white guy with a gun they take more time," Correll said.

And the professor points out that all of this, in the real world, can have tragic consequences.

Consider the case of Jonathan Ferrell, a former Florida A&M football player shot to death last month, when he tried to get help after a car crash. Or take the case of Brooklyn teenager Kimani Gray, who witnesses claim was unarmed when police shot him 11 times. Or the 1999 case that started it all for Correll—Amadou Diallo—shot 41 times by New York Police after he reached for his wallet.

So what do our test takers think of all of this? Some flat out disagreed with the professor's findings.

“It's not fair. It's not fair to keep hauling out the race card,” Paul Speer said.

In fact, at the gun range, most participants rejected the idea of a subconscious racial bias.

"I crunch numbers for a living and I can make the numbers look like anything," said Robbie Boettcher.

"Psychologists get paid lots of money for coming up with great ideas, but I don't agree with it, I mean the whole idea is that you're looking for a weapon," said John Parker.

Yet others acknowledged something deeper could be behind the decision to shoot.

"And unfortunately it does happen- in this world that we live in, nobody's perfect,” said Joe Whitney.

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