The Trayvon Martin Tragedy And Psychology, Part Three: Cultural Stereotypes

students_112210-thumb-640xauto-1605In part two of this three part post, we discussed how psychological research suggests that people who have a gun themselves are more likely to assume that other people also have guns, even when they don’t.

We have to wonder if this played a role the night when Mr. Zimmerman saw Trayvon Martin, who was wearing a hoodie and likely carrying the items he had (skittles and a can of ice tea) in the pockets of his hoodie.

Could, based on this research, Mr. Zimmerman think that the probability of Trayvon being armed was very likely which may have been another reason he was more willing to shoot?

In another research done by psychologist Joshua Correll, groups of college students were placed in a simulated situation where images were flashed across the screen, similar to the research mentioned above, instead these college students were asked to either shoot or not shoot the individuals that flashed across their screen depending on if they were armed or not, a situation known as Police Officer’s Dilemma. 

Some of the targets that flashed across the screen were holding an aluminum can, a wallet or a cell phone for instance. Participants who choose correctly to shoot an armed suspect were rewarded 10 ponts, if they correctly didn’t shoot an unarmed suspect they received 5 points. Shooting an unarmed person deducted 20 points and not shooting an armed suspect was deducted the most points, 40, because in reality that could mean paying the ultimate penalty of death.

As each target flashed across the screen, participants were asked to decide as quick as possible to shoot or not so shoot by pressing “shoot” or “don’t shoot” buttons. What the participants didn’t know was that some of the targets would be White and some Black.

Would the color of the suspects skin change the likelihood of shooting an unarmed suspect?

Over the course of four studies, researchers found what they termed shooter bias. Participants were quicker to correctly shoot an armed suspect if he was Black and to correctly not shoot an unarmed suspect if he was White. However, the alarming and sad discovery was that participants were consistently more likely to shoot an unarmed suspect if he was Black.

Why is this? Is this because those participants were racists who believed in the negative stereotypes of Black people being more dangerous, aggressive and likely to be armed? If this is the case, then participants who considered themselves to not be racist, to be fair and equal to all people, would have lower incidents in the research of shooting unarmed Black targets, but that wasn’t the case. Across the board, regardless of the level of racism, the same results could be predicted.

Outright levels of racism didn’t matter, but what did matter was- the participants’ level of awareness that there is prejudice towards Black people in American society, even if the participant adamantly did not support those stereotypes. 

What does that mean? It means that simply being aware that there are cultural stereotypes and prejudice towards a group, even if you personally do not believe and disagree with them, makes it more likely that in a split-second decision in an uncertain conditions, you are more likely to make a biased mistake such as shooting an unarmed, non-threatening person. This bias is likely to be depended on the person race, ethnicity, age, sex, etc.

This doesn’t mean that you are racist. I speak a lot in my group work about how we have all been brainwashed to various degrees by society and most of us have been brainwashed to believe that Black men are armed and dangerous. Even if you don’t believe this to be true, under uncertain conditions where you have to make a split- second decision, those subconscious thoughts come roaring into your consciousness and may make you respond irrationally.

We all live in a culture that embraces certain stereotypes and you don’t even have be aware of it, or think that it effects you for it to become imbedded into your cultural knowledge base. Even without you knowing, they will impact the way you interact, think and behave, sometimes in ways that are shocking.

In the article I wrote about some Black females wanting to have light skinned babies, I talked about the Clark Doll Test. This is another form of brainwashing where without even knowing it, little Black girls had been taught through social cues that Black= ugly and stupid while White= beautiful and smart. No one “taught” them this, it was ingrained into their cultural knowledge base by society.

By the way, when Black participants were given the same test, to shoot or not shoot, they were just as likely to shoot an unarmed Black person as White participants were. Cultural stereotypes affect all of us.

Cultural stereotypes can become automatically activated and influence our behavior, even without us knowing that is what is happening. Most of the participants in the study for instance would have probably been angry and disagree if it was suggested that the race of the target played a role in their decision to shoot or not to shoot, even when faced with the evidence.

Is Mr. Zimmerman a racist? Again, I can not say, but I do believe race played a role in this. However, I don’t think racism alone explains what happened and it is more complex. The fact that Mr. Zimmerman was carrying a gun of course played a role in this tragedy and definitely cultural stereotypes played a major role.

I think this tragedy definitely should open up conversation about many issues including the consequences we and our children have to deal with, growing up in a culturally stereotypical and racist society that affects all of us, even when we don’t realize it.

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