5 Psychology Studies That Support #BlackLivesMatter

Research exposes the many biases Black people face in American society.

Posted Sep 25, 2020

Six months after Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old emergency medical technician, was fatally shot by police in her own Louisville, Kentucky home, a grand jury decided not to indict any of the officers involved in her death. Instead, they charged one of the officers with three counts of "wanton endangerment" for firing shots that flew into an adjacent apartment when Taylor’s neighbors were there.

This outcome has at once sparked anger and heartbreak. Taylor was simply watching a movie with her boyfriend at home. The sheer ordinariness of how she was spending her evening underscores why many Black Americans feel that their lives are seen as comparatively less valuable in American society.

The #BlackLivesMatter movement has been criticized, maintaining that as a society we should remain focused on "all lives." But Taylor’s horrific death, one of far too many, once again demonstrates the very real dangers that Black people face that others in American life do not.

Psychology, in a sense, can be an ally to BLM in providing empirical support. Here are just five psychology studies that demonstrate systematic bias against Black people in America.

Black people are superhuman. Take a study in which researchers investigated whether White people see Black people as superhuman, that is, possessing supernatural, extrasensory, and magical mental and physical qualities. Popular culture is just one sphere in our society, the authors maintain, in which Black people are portrayed as superhuman, as evidenced by characters in The Green Mile and The Legend of Bagger Vance.

In a series of five experiments, the team administered tests of implicit and explicit bias, to see whether White people superhumanize Black people relative to White people. For instance, in one task, participants categorized pictures of Black and White, male and female faces, and superhuman and human words on a computer screen, with investigators measuring the strength of associations between two concepts (Black Americans and White Americans) and two attributes (superhuman and human). Analyses revealed that White people implicitly and explicitly superhumanize Black people versus White people. The authors interpret the results as supporting the idea that Black people are dehumanized not through “animalization or mechanization,” but by depicting them as superhuman.

Black people feel less physical pain than Whites. Analyzing National Football League injury reports data, investigators found that by comparison to injured White players, injured Black players are assessed as more likely to play in a subsequent game. In a series of four experiments, researchers found that White and Black participants—which included registered nurses and nursing students—assume that Black people feel less pain than do White people. The investigators also found that this bias is based on perceptions of status, and not race per se, such that Black people and others who are seen as “low-status” in our society are characterized as comparatively “tougher.” The authors contend that their work helps us to better understand not only race-related biases and healthcare disparities, but also police brutality. The researchers aver that while although some Whites (and non-Whites) condone police brutality against Black men simply because they are Black, it might also be that police brutality against Black men is tolerated because it is presumed that Black men feel less physical pain.

Black people are associated with danger.  Studies show that Black men and boys are viewed in the light of violence and criminality, and that this association generalizes to Black women and Black girls. In a series of experiments, non-Black participants completed tasks in which they saw faces varying in race, age, and gender before categorizing danger-related objects or words. Non-Black and Black participants performances on this task were also compared. The results were striking. Black children and adults, male and female, were more closely associated with danger by comparison to their White counterparts, revealing racial bias.

Physicians talk to Black patients differently. Does racial bias permeate the doctor’s office? Unfortunately, research suggests that it does. Take a study that investigated how non-Black physicians communicated with Black patients. Investigators transcribed and analyzed 117 video-recorded “racially discordant medical interactions” from a larger study, using Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count software to analyze their word use. What did they find? Physicians with higher levels of implicit and explicit racial bias used anxiety-related words and language reflective of social dominance with greater frequency when meeting with Black patients. Those who are high on social dominance favor group-based domination and inequality; this preference has been linked to language usage, with ample research finding that higher status speakers tend to use more first-person plural pronouns (e.g., we, us, our) and less first-person singular pronouns (e.g., I, me, my).

Black children are seen as more angry than White children. Are people racially biased when judging the emotions of others? Take a study that investigated “racialized emotion recognition accuracy” and anger bias toward children. The investigators had 178 prospective teachers (70% White, 9% Hispanic, 8% Asian, 6% Black, 5% Biracial, 1% Native American, and 1% Middle Eastern) complete an emotion recognition task made up of 72 children’s facial expressions, portraying six emotions, and divided equally by race (Black, White) and gender (female, male). Participants were also given questionnaires of implicit and explicit racial bias. What did the researchers find? Both Black boys and Black girls were erroneously seen as angry with greater frequency than White boys and White girls.

These are just five studies in a sea of research demonstrating the range of pernicious biases that Black people confront in their everyday lives. If you want to share additional studies, please do so in the comments section.

References

Physician Racial Bias and Word Use during Racially Discordant Medical Interactions. Nao Hagiwara, Richard B. Slatcher, Susan Eggly & Louis A. Penner, Pages 401-408 | Published online: 16 Jun 2016

Racialized emotion recognition accuracy and anger bias of children's faces. Amy G Halberstadt, Alison N Cooke, Pamela W Garner, Sherick A Hughes, Dejah Oertwig, Shevaun D Neupert. DOI: 10.1037/emo0000756

Trawalter S, Hoffman KM, Waytz A (2016) Racial Bias in Perceptions of Others' Pain. PLOS ONE 11(3): e0152334. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0152334

Are Black Women and Girls Associated With Danger? Implicit Racial Bias at the Intersection of Target Age and Gender. Kelsey C. Thiem, Rebecca Neel, Austin J. Simpson, Andrew R. Todd (2019) https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167219829182

A Superhumanization Bias in Whites' Perceptions of Blacks

Adam Waytz, Kelly Marie Hoffman and Sophie Trawalter. Social Psychological and Personality Science published online 8 October 2014 DOI: 10.1177/1948550614553642