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.

The Trayvon Martin Tragedy And Psychology, Part Two: Cognitive Bias And Confirmation Bias

Zimmerman Martin 104When we look at the Trayvon Martin case, we have to wonder what was going on in Mr. Zimmerman’s mind the night he spotted Trayvon Martin, an unfamiliar figure, walking through his neighborhood. Instead of looking at this as a race incident, I think it’s important that we take a look at what in psychology is called cognitive bias.

Cognitive bias is something that I find easier to understand than to actually explain, but Haselton, M. G., Nettle, D., & Andrews, P. W. in The evolution of cognitive bias (2005) explain cognitive bias as a pattern of deviation in judgment, whereby inferences of other people and situations may be drawn in an illogical fashion.

Basically, people create their own sense of reality (subjective social reality) based on their perceptions of objective information which influence how they respond and react to situations both mentally and physically. This cognitive bias however can be wrong and lead to poor judgement, wrong interpretations of a situation, perceptual distortions and irrational behavior/reactions.

Confirmation bias on the other hand is when we look for information that confirms what we already believe, even if other information that disconfirms it is also present. For instance, supporters of Mr. Zimmerman and Zimmerman himself will latch on to information that suggest Trayvon had a violence past, used marijuana or was involved in gang activity while Trayvon’s family and supporters will likely relish information that says Mr. Zimmerman was a racist, impulsive or quick to take the law into his own hands.

With little other information about either person, we are likely to come to some pretty strong conclusions based simply on our cognitive biases and confirmation biases alone.

Some cognitive biases are adaptive and help us make decisions faster, especially when a higher value is placed on quick action over accuracy. Others can be learned, generally subconsciously.

There are entire books written on cognitive biases, but the important part is that you have a basic understanding that people often think incorrectly and then act irrationally based on their misperceptions.

Late psychologist Ziva Kunda wrote in her article “The Case for Motivated Reasoning” that “people are more likely to arrive at those conclusions that they want to arrive at” unless they are motivated specifically to make accurate judgements and decisions.

For instance, there’s a study done by psychology professors at Notre Dame and Purdue University that showed that a person carrying a gun is more likely to “see guns in the hands of others”.

In the study, participants were given a toy gun or a foam ball. They were then flashed people across a computer screen holding either a toy gun, a cell phone or something else. The participants with the toy guns were more likely to say that the people on the screen were holding a gun, even when they were not.

In the Trayvon Martin situation this means that Mr. Zimmerman saw what he thought he saw based on his own experiences and mental frameworks. Mr. Zimmerman had stated on several occasions that there had been multiple break ins in his gated community and that “they always get away”. By “they” I am assuming he means burglars or other bad guys, not African Americans, but those who are looking for a racist spin will interpret “they” as meaning African American or black people.

Mr. Zimmerman was looking for Trayvon to be a criminal and thus he saw a criminal, although Trayvon was just walking back to his father’s house from the store and wasn’t involved in any criminal activity. As the neighborhood watchman, Mr. Zimmerman was likely looking for criminal and suspicious activity everywhere and thus was more likely to think someone was a criminal or suspicious even when they weren’t.

Now that Mr. Zimmerman believes he has spotted a criminal, he goes on to do some irrational things based on his cognitive bias that Trayvon is a criminal. He starts following Trayvon, calls the police and then continues to follow Trayvon so that he can give the police an accurate location to find this “criminal”.

Many people want to say that Mr. Zimmerman did what he did on that night because he is a racist, something I can’t say he is or isn’t, but you don’t have to be racist to be prejudice and you’ll be surprised to learn that most of us are prejudice to some extent.

Subconsciously we are more likely to be prejudice towards out-groups, which are people we psychologically do not identify with as part of our group. I discussed in a post I wrote about helping others how this same type of subconscious thinking makes it more likely for us to help those that we feel are similar to us in what is called similarity bias. 

Because Trayvon was of a different race, it made it more likely that subconsciously Mr. Zimmerman was even more suspicious of him. In the next post I’ll discuss how social stereotypes predispose most of us to have certain prejudices that then lead us to have different cognitive bias.

Although these subconscious forces are indeed powerful, there is a way we can control them to a degree through what is called “thinking safe” instead of “thinking quick”. When we think quick, we are likely to make inaccurate assumptions and if Mr. Zimmerman thought he had spotted a criminal prowling his neighborhood, he was most likely thinking “quick” and not “safe” and his cognitive biases and subconscious prejudices combined with that probably contributed a lot to the actions he took that night that left an unarmed teenager dead.

What I am getting to is that while race and prejudices probably played major factors into this tragedy, most of it likely came from subconscious psychological factors that were at play.

We will put all this together and wrap it up in part three of this discussion.

The Trayvon Martin Tragedy And Psychology, Part One: My Personal Thoughts And Experiences With Racial Profiling

trayvon_martin_dad1The Trayvon Martin trial began this week with jury selections that are proving to be difficult for multiple reasons.

The Trayvon Martin case hits home for me for many reasons, not just because I too am an African American, but because the small city this happened in, Sanford, Florida is a suburb of Orlando, the city I live in. As a matter of fact, one of the schools I was offered to transfer to is located in Sanford.

Another reason it hits home for me is because as an African American male I have faced racial profiling many times in my life, especially when I was a teenager.

When I was a young teen it was very common for me to be followed around in stores and I can remember at least twice when I was actually stopped and confronted by a store worker for “stealing” although I wasn’t. My friends and I used to have a joke that once we entered a store they would have a special code they would say over the intercom to alert them that black people were in the store.

When I was young I thought it was a necessary hassle, sometimes I even thought it was funny because the store clerks would try not to be obvious, but they were always obvious to me. I was, even at a young age always aware however that I was seen a a criminal and “guilty” even though I had committed no crimes.

As an older teen things got worse, but still, being a teenager I didn’t take it personal and even thought it was funny at times.

Driving my mother’s car, on a weekly basis I would get pulled over, sometimes searched, but always inconvenienced for absolutely no reason.

I remember my friends and I would go to Dennys and sometimes be there for an hour or longer before we were ever even asked what we wanted to order. At the time I didn’t think anything of it other than bad service, but when I got older, I learned about the discriminatory practices Dennys used in some locations to deter African American customers and have no doubt that is what was going on then, we just didn’t know it.

Being harassed by the police was so common that I started to feel like a criminal whenever I saw one, expecting them to stop and search me for no reason which sometimes they did.

In particularly I remember an incident in which I went to visit with some friends in a gated community and decided to take a walk around the block. Well I didn’t even get half way around the block before I was approached by security and asked what was I doing there. He stated that someone had called about a suspicious person in the neighborhood. I couldn’t help, but to think that the only thing that truly made me suspicious was my skin color, because unlike Trayvon Martin I wasn’t wearing a hoodie and it was daylight out.

The Trayvon Martin case hits so close to home because I, like millions of other black and brown men around our country can identify with his situation. I don’t want to go into detail here because I don’t know all the details, but what I do know is what we know from Mr. Zimmerman himself.

He saw Trayvon Martin and for whatever reason thought that he was up to no good. We know that Trayvon was doing nothing wrong, yet he was viewed as a criminal and guilty automatically, much like I have been multiple times in my life.

For this reason, I will write a bigger, more in-depth article behind some of the psychological reasons I believe this tragic incident happened.

As a young African American male, I took the harassment by store clerks and law enforcement as a necessary price I had to pay for being young and black. I didn’t take it personal, but as I got older and became a college educated adult with a professional job, on the rare occasions I felt harassed because of my skin color, I no longer found it funny or necessary, but extremely irritating and degrading.

About two years ago on my way to work, dressed in a shirt and tie I got pulled over by a police officer. I actually knew he was going to pull me over before he did it because it was just him and me on the road. I didn’t mind the stop because I knew I didn’t do anything wrong and after checking my license and verifying I had no warrants, instead of letting me go he asked me if I had any guns and drugs in the car and if I minded if he searched it.

I was shocked, largely because I had assumed that this type of harassment would stop when I got older and certainly once I went to college and became a professional, but it didn’t, it just became less frequent.

About four months ago I was pulled over by an undercover truck with four police officers, asking me again if I had drugs and guns. It was only when one of the officers recognized me that they eased up and immediately let me go. It was dark and if I had mistakenly took this undercover stop as a carjacking (which I initially was afraid it was) it could have ended tragically for me.

Just yesterday on Facebook, a friend of mine and a successful store manager wrote jokingly, “The first time not getting pulled over for being black I get 2 tickets. I think I prefer them holding me at gunpoint and searching for guns and drugs, it’s cheaper.”

The Trayvon Martin case resonates with me because it could have easily been me or one day, my son.

I think this unfortunate situation has a lot to teach us not just about race relations, but about the way we receive and perceive information through our minds based on preconceived notions which we will explore in my next post.