Stereotypes, Prejudice, Bias, & Deaths of Young Black Americans: My intro to social justice neuroscience.

So I got to Rome, where I'm doing work on Social Stereotypes. I've been very busy (more on that next time), but I've been working on this "Shooter Bais" post for a while now. Since I started, there have been  number of recent articles on the psychology and neuroscience of shootings of  young black men. I am going to elaborate on the neuroscience and talk about ethical and practical implications.
Images by Joshua Correll,  example screens from Shooter Bias Video Game Study. Source:
Images by Joshua Correll, example screens from Shooter Bias Video Game Study. Source

Quick update: I’m home in California and I’ll be posting things that I started writing in Rome, but never finished. In Rome I’ve been working on the cognitive basis of social stereotypes about people with disabilities. I was first exposed to the study of prejudice and bias, in Cognitive Psychology and Neuroscience, when I read about the Correll group‘s work on “Shooter Bias”. The aim of the Correll “shooter Bias” studies is to investigate the cognitive basis of police shootings of unarmed black men.

Certain people might know that I’ve been promising to write about this topic for a long time. I’ve been working on it, slowly, but I’ve been busy. Living in Rome, like life in any major city is difficult. It is particularly difficult if you’re a non-European national. However, it is impossible if you’re not from a first world country (according to my land lord this is the point of the “difficult” policies), so in that sense I’m lucky. I have taken extra time reviseing what I originally wrote,  so I’m not repeating what a lot of recent great articles say. Here, I am going to elaborate on the neuroscience and then talk about practical implications.

Note: I was introduced to Shooter Bias and signal detection theory in Psych 120 taught by my undergraduate thesis advisor Michel Spezio at Scripps College. I first read  the 2006 Correll study for a paper I wrote for this class and the Michel Moore video was shown in this class. 

Part I: Facts

From 2006-2012 a white police officer shot a black man (or male child) twice a week.

Dante Parker, 36, San Bernardino County, Calif.—August 12, 2014. Source:
Dante Parker, 36, San Bernardino County, Calif.—August 12, 2014. Source
Ezell Ford, 25, Los Angeles, Calif.—August 12, 2014. Source:
Ezell Ford, 25, Los Angeles, Calif.—August 12, 2014. Source

After Travon Martin died, I remember I was sitting in the lab with my labmate, who is black.

“I’m scared to have kids,” she told me.

“What if one of them is a boy? What will happen to him?”

Kajieme Powell, 25, St. Louis, Mo.—August 19, 2014. Source:
Kajieme Powell, 25, St. Louis, Mo.—August 19, 2014. Source
Akai Gurley, 28, Brooklyn, NY—Nov. 20, 2014. Source:
Akai Gurley, 28, Brooklyn, NY—Nov. 20, 2014. Source

I know she really wanted kids.

She would talk to me about her strategy ideas for managing research and parenting.

Hearing this from her shocked and angered me.

I was angry in 2009, when Raheim Brown, presenting no apparent threat was killed on BART.

That was when I really started paying attention.

Anyone paying attention knows, This. Keeps. Happening.

There is an obvious problem in the way cops interact with young black men and boys.

Tamir Rice, 12, Cleveland, Ohio—Nov. 22, 2014.
Tamir Rice, 12, Cleveland, Ohio—Nov. 22, 2014. Source
Rumain Brisbon, 34, Phoenix, Ariz.—Dec. 2, 2014. Source:
Rumain Brisbon, 34, Phoenix, Ariz.—Dec. 2, 2014 Source

Part II: Science

Since I started writing this I’ve seen three excellent articles by Chris Mooney at Now with Bill Moyers on PBS,  Erika Eichelberger at Mother Jones, and Kimberly Barsamian Kahn at the Origonian, on the neuroscience and psychology of the shootings of young black men.

“Shooter Bias”

Shooter bias is an affect, originally observed in a 2002 study by the Correll group, which was inspired by the shooting of Amadou Diallo by the NYPD in 1999, after police mistook his wallet for a weapon. At the time, my mother was a devoted Awful Truth fan and I remember being introduced to the case though Michael Moore. Of course now it seems like even Moore’s (then humorous) suggestion that African Americans keep their hands up at all times may not be enough to keep them safe: Cognitive psychology is particularly well suited to answer questions about how various factors affect a persons ability to categorize two classes of things. Correll et al. 2002 used a shooter video game paradigm. Participants were asked to respond to images of unarmed and armed white and black men with either a “shoot” or “don’t shoot” button. The authors found that people demonstrated  faster reaction times when shooting armed black men and slower reaction times when choosing the “don’t shoot” button for unarmed black men.

Furthermore, Correll et al. conducted a signal detection analysis. This analysis, based on concepts from engineering, allows psychologists to determine weather an error comes from difficulty discriminating between things or from a tendency to prefer one response over another. Correll et al. found that participants ability to discriminate between armed and unarmed men was the same for images of black and white men. However, participants were more likely to indicate that black images were “armed” than “unarmed”. This indicates that participants have a bias to say that black men are “armed”.

The shooter bias effect occurred in both police officers and members of the general public. In the Oregonian, Dr. Kahn, a social psychologist at Portland State University, describes how her own work shows that bias exists for not just for shooter responses, but for various levels of police force. No research indicates that bias is a conscious process.


Me learning how to use an EEG net, with other students in my undergraduate cognitive neuroscience class.  I'm second from the left in the back. I was experimenting with cutting my own hair, it was not going well, at this time, but results have improved since! Image source:
Me and other students in my undergraduate cognitive neuroscience class, learning how to use an EEG. I’m second from the left in the back. I was experimenting with cutting my own hair. It was not going well. Results improved since! Source.

In a 2006 study the Correll group used EEG to examine the shooter bias effect. Electroencephalography (EEG) records electoral activity along the scalp. The type of activity the Correll group used was an event related potential (ERP). An ERP potential connected with the presentation of a stimulus. To extract an ERP from an EEG signal repeated events are averaged and special algorithms are used to remove noise. The Correll group found that early ERP components differed between black and white targets, in their shooter paradigm and that the degree of difference was correlated with bias (using a ANOVA, not signal detection statistics).

MRI coronal view of the Amygdala. Source:
MRI coronal view of the Amygdala. Source.

Amodio, the scientist interviewed in the Mooney article, recently published a nature paper that reviewed current work on the neural basis of stereotyping and prejudice. In the paper, Amodio identifies a prejudice and stereotyping network, which includes the amygdala, insula, striatum, ventral medial prefrontal cortex, and orbital frontal cortex. The amygdala, in particular, has been associated with the threat perception in racial prejudice.

Amodio points out that the amygdala is not a single organ but made up of 13 neuculi (brain neuculi, not to be confused with cell neuculi), each of which have different functions. Sensory organs feed into the lateral nucleus of the amygdala, allowing it to respond quickly to stimuli. The central nucleus is implicated in pavlovian fear conditioning and the basal nucleus gives appetitive and instrumental responses.  In humans the amygdala plays a role in processing social cues and social threat. For this reason, researchers have suspected that it may have a role in race prejudice. None of the studies he described found that amygdala response varied between black and white faces, but it did vary as a function of behavioral prejudice and eye blink responses to black and white faces.

Part III: Implications

Racism does not Require Intent

“We all want to believe in progress, in history that marches forward in a neat line, in transcended differences and growing acceptance, in how good the good white people have become. So we expect racism to appear, cartoonishly evil like a Disney villain. As if a racist cop is one who wakes in the morning, twirling his mustache and rubbing his hands together as he plots how to destroy black lives.” –Brit Bennett, writing for Jezabel.

As scientists, we can validate that racial bias affects  shoot/ don’t shoot decisions. In Neuroscience we can study concepts like bias and prejudice, in relation to particular social groupings (African Americans, People with Disabilities, Gay Men, Asian Women, etc.). However, in demonstrating the existence of bias we can only validate the cultural experience of racism. We can validate that racial bias is expressed in shoot don’t shoot decisions. We can’t determine weather or not someone “meant” to be racist, but this is unnecessary. Oppression can happen without the intent or even the knowledge of the person doing it.  Racism is in our culture and expressing it does not require effort. Not expressing it, however, is a choice and does require effort and education.

Gravitas and black lives.

When I wrote about the Isla Vista shooting,  I talked about how the narratives of the white mass shooter and the white police shooter differ in the empathy ascribed to victims. I recently read a 1997 interview with Angela Davis, where she was asked to compare the black community to immigrant groups in the US. To answer this question she describes how corporate exploitation of people in other countries have created “alternative economies…that has for example eradicated large numbers of jobs that black people traditionally have been able to count upon and created communities where the tax base is lost now as a result of corporations moving to the third world in order to discover cheap labor”.  She describes the connection between the conditions that affect African Americans and that affect immigrant populations in the 1990s, but she evades the interviewers attempt to equate African Americans with immigrant groups.

It’s easy to take the similarities between groups and situations as evidence that the “real” problem isn’t something specific to the experience of black people in the US. Here, it’s useful to introduce the feminist concept of intersectionality, which is an approach that focuses on how individuals expierence multiple forms of oppression and privilege are experienced. Normally the term is used when discussing people who belong to more than one oppressed group (e.g. black women, queer women, etc.) An essential idea in intersectional feminism is that while individual experiences are important they are not useful for describing a population. For example, a women of a particular race or nationality doesn’t represent all women. When it comes to experiences that revolve around threatening feelings about a particular identity (such as fear of being targeted, because of perceived weakness among women) these experiences are common to those who share the identity. People who have relationships with people who have this identity can certainly feel the affects of these experiences, but we need to be careful about how we talk about those feelings.

Found on:
Don’t do this.  Source.

When I read African American bloggers, I notice a strong desire that people (and presidents) acknowledge that police shootings of young black men are a problem specific to the black community. It is not just the individuals who are killed or their families who are affected. I think about my friend’s fear of having children. I also see reflected in the way black activists talk about these shootings. After Travon Martin died, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tome created #blacklivesmatter. According to Garza, “Black Lives Matter is an ideological and political intervention in a world where Black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise.  It is an affirmation of Black folks’ contributions to this society, our humanity, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression.”

Garza then goes on to describe how #blacklivesmatter became “all lives matter, brown lives matter, migrant lives matter, women’s lives matter”, after a Law and Order SVU episode. I was reminded of criticism that the  #yesallwomen movement, after the Isla Vista shooting, was sexist, because it excluded men. However, one of the main points of this movement was to expose experiences that are invisible to men. Likewise, Garza points out that changing “black lives matter” to “all lives matter” undermines the original idea and fails to acknowledge existing privilege.

Suggested Further Reading/ Watching

Here is the full video of the arrest and death of Eric Garner. It is extremely disturbing, but I think that is part of what makes it useful. If you’re not angry yet, please watch:


4 thoughts on “Stereotypes, Prejudice, Bias, & Deaths of Young Black Americans: My intro to social justice neuroscience.

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