Implicit Bias and (Mis)Perceptions

Trayvon martinBy Cheryl Staats, Research Associate,

Also published on Race-Talk

A month after his passing, Trayvon Martin’s untimely death at age 17 continues to saturate national headlines.  By now the familiar details are familiar but remain haunting.  Walking home from a convenience store in Sanford, FL on February 26th carrying a bag of Skittles and an iced tea, the Black teenager was followed, confronted, and shot by George Zimmerman, an overzealous self-appointed “neighborhood watch captain.”  Zimmerman claims he acted in self-defense after citing what he believed to be suspicious behavior displayed by Martin.  Despite Zimmerman explicitly being told by a 911 dispatcher not to follow Martin, Zimmerman pursued the teen, wielding a gun that ultimately took the teen’s life.  Martin was unarmed.

The senselessness of this killing, amplified by the fact that Zimmerman has yet to be arrested, has prompted widespread outrage, energizing passionate marches, rallies, and petitions calling for justice.  This story remains the talk of the nation, even meriting remarks from President Obama, as we collectively dissect the details and try to make sense of this seemingly incomprehensible transgression.  Many facets of that evening are being analyzed, ranging from the official (e.g., Florida’s Stand Your Ground law) to the mundane (Trayvon’s apparel).  One topic that has not received much attention, however, is the concept of implicit bias.

Also known as unconscious or hidden bias, implicit biases are negative associations that people unknowingly hold and may express automatically without conscious awareness.  Many studies have indicated that implicit biases affect individuals’ attitudes and actions, thus creating real-world implications even though individuals may not even be aware that these biases exist within themselves.  Implicit bias should not be regarded as an excuse for behavior, but rather a possible contributing factor to one’s actions.

Research on implicit bias that is particularly salient in this case is studies that examine shooter bias.  In short, shooter bias is measured through a computerized simulation test in which participants are instructed to “shoot” if the man that appears on the screen is holding a gun, but refrain if the man on the screen is holding a benign object such as a can of soda pop.  The research examines participants’ reactions to these images, as the series of images of both Black and white men flash on the screen.  Shooter bias reflects the finding that participants made faster decisions and were more likely to shoot when the image depicted a Black man, even when this was an erroneous decision and the Black man was not actually brandishing a firearm.

The 911 audio suggests that a physical confrontation took place between Martin and Zimmerman, though much uncertainty surrounds how the scuffle was instigated and by whom.  Implicit bias opens up the possibility that Zimmerman’s actions, although unquestionably reprehensible, may have been fueled by more than just conscious motivation.  This research, combined with the pervasive societal narrative that demonizes Black men as dangerous and criminal, could explain – but certainly not excuse – Zimmerman’s inclination to follow Martin and conclude that Martin was a dangerous figure.

Investigations into Trayvon Martin’s death are ongoing.  Martin, along with his family and loved ones, deserve justice.  Zimmerman unquestionably should be held accountable for his actions, regardless of the source(s) of his motivation.  Implicit bias research reminds us that the associations our minds make subconsciously can affect real-life actions and outcomes.  As such, Martin’s very presence as a young Black male may have activated implicit racial biases in Zimmerman, thereby unconsciously stimulating his belief that Martin posed a threat and warranted pursuit.  Research from shooter bias and related studies indicate that our interpretations not always as accurate as we think they are, and in this case, Zimmerman’s unconscious associations related to Black males and criminality may have contributed to the deadly confrontation.