Bias, heuristics, and judgment: Racial bias and police force

Bias, heuristics, and judgment: Racial bias and police force

*I realize this post is political, and therefore has the potential to be off-putting. I apologize in advance if I tread on anyone’s particular position on this contemporary issue*

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During the past decade, the news has been increasingly covering stories involving racial bias and police brutality. We, as a society, are being confronted with a huge problem.

There has been an enormous debate between whether racial bias has been a cause for more violence, or at least an increased awareness of this violence. Between “black lives matter” and “all lives matter” campaigns, it has become clear that as a nation we do not agree as to why so much violence, particularly against minorities, exists and has filled the news. Endless Facebook arguments to governmental debates have occurred over this issue, pitting friends and foes alike against each other.

Whether we agree with the politics behind it or not, the issue of racial bias has become evident in various discussions across the nation.

Some people reading this post may disagree with the fact that racial bias has anything at all to do with what has been occurring in our nation. However, if we do attribute some blame to instances of racial biases, we must ask ourselves… Why do some people have guns drawn on them more than others on the basis of nothing more than the color of their skin?

I personally do believe that there are problems that a lot of people have been denying exist in our society: racism and privilege, and the consequences of both. It’s not pulling the “race-card”, it’s not saying that everyone who is white or conservative or a police officer is racist and violent, but it is acknowledging that we, as a society, have huge underlying problems, and a particular lack of understanding or empathy for those who experience these problems.

As a contemporary issue, I was interested to see how a cognitive psychological perspective and understanding could apply to the argument behind the existence of racial bias, police brutality, and why nothing (until more recently) has significantly change in our society to rectify such injustices, and support my own personal and political opinion.

As we have learned very clearly this semester that human beings aren’t always rational. There is a specific, cognitive psychological concept we have discussed that I see as contributing to racial bias and systematic, institutionalized racism.


Explicit stereotypes are the result of intentional, conscious, and controllable thoughts and beliefs. Explicit stereotypes usually are directed toward a group of people based on what is being perceived by an outsider of the group. These stereotypes are what we say out loud, what we consciously believe and hold to be true.

Although some people proudly expose their potentially racist ideologies, since I like to believe that everyone tries to overcome racism, I would like to focus on implicit stereotypes.

An implicit stereotype is an unconscious attribution of specific qualities to a member of a certain social group. “These stereotypes are influenced by experience, and are based on learned associations between various qualities and social categories, including race or gender. Individuals’ perceptions and behaviors can be affected by implicit stereotypes, even without the individuals’ intention or awareness. Implicit stereotypes are an aspect of implicit social cognition, the phenomenon that perceptions, attitudes, and stereotypes operate without conscious intention. The existence of implicit stereotypes is supported by a variety of scientific articles in psychological literature”

Implicit stereotypes can be activated by the environment, and operate outside of intentional conscious cognition. For example, we can unconsciously stereotype all pitbulls as being dangerous. This stereotype may be associated with one event that we may have seen in the past (or what we have been told is the past…), but the source of these associations may be misidentified, or even unknown by the individual who holds them, and can persist even when an individual rejects the stereotype explicitly and outwardly. Therefore, regardless of the beliefs you think you may hold, racial bias still is a part of your thought process. Like a fish that swims through water, we live in a society where race is still an issue. In truth, everybody really is a little bit racist.

Our feelings and experiences can dictate how we perceive the world, influencing our decision-making processes, actions, and how we perceive and treat others. Although this can be useful to us because if we know what to avoid and how particular things made us feel (we can run, avoid, or fight if we need to), stereotyping, or relying on heuristics, can really set us back. Similarly to stereotypes, heuristics are shortcut to solutions, things we use to understand our daily lives quickly and arguably efficiently. However, these heuristics are not always correct. Although they require less effort, they aren’t the most efficient. However, we use heuristics because unlike algorithms, they require much less mental effort. Availability and representativeness play a huge role in perpetuating racial bias.

Attitudes, stereotypes, and prejudices are all things that can influence our behavior and feelings toward an individual or group, such as racial minorities.

An attitude is “…an evaluative judgment of an object, a person, or a social group”. We can form an attitude toward anyone, like golfers. We can have many different types of attitudes toward golfers, either be positive or negative, that influence how we treat, interact with, perceive, and understand other golfers.

A stereotype is the “…association of a person or a social group with a consistent set of traits”. This may include both positive and negative traits, such as women are more understanding or women are irrational and therefore are bad decision-makers. There are many types of stereotypes that exist: racial, cultural, gender, group – all being very explicit in the lives of many people within and outside these groups.

Prejudice is an “…unfair negative attitude toward a social group or a member of that group”. Prejudices can stem from many of the things that people observe in a different social group that include, but are not limited to, gender, sex, race/ethnicity, or religion.


Stereotypes, heuristics, and bias play a huge part, I believe, in what has been contributing to the violence we have been seeing.

One way to see this is by looking at the role the media plays in perpetuating stereotypes. Media often portrays minorities in negative lights to explain things such as rates of crime, instead allowing us, as a society, to accept responsibility for the racism we perpetuate (through looking at the effects of institutionalized racism, social stratification, etc). For example, why is it that when Tamir Rice, a twelve year old boy playing with a toy gun outside a recreation center, was shot and killed by a police officer, media immediately began describing the “thuggish” lives of his parents? They later claimed because they were trying to “explain why he had a toy gun”, but what kid hasn’t played with a toy gun or some other “badass” object to feel cool? I “smoked” candy cigarettes when I was twelve, but even better, I know plenty of people who at young ages played violent and realistic (killing-focused) video games, which are much more violent than playing with a fake gun (that was probably bought at any local toy store).

And perhaps the police officers who encountered Tamir Rice truly feared for their lives. The police officers aren’t necessarily the bad guys here. They, just like us, just like Tamir, encounter and are influenced by racial bias and stereotypes. They weren’t relayed the information that the gun was probably fake, or that the person carrying the gun was a child. So why did this happen? Because our society fears minorities and other groups due to racial stereotypes and other stereotypes. Because racial stereotypes probably influenced the 911 operator’s decision not to share crucial information.

After Tamir Rice was killed by a police officer, I saw this particular picture on Humans of New York, a favorite Facebook page of mine to follow. With interesting stories and powerful, thought-provoking anecdotes, Humans of New York always provides additional insight into contemporary issues. This picture shows three young men, all minorities. They were asked, “What is your greatest struggle right now?”.  The reply? “Not being white”…

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I’m not seeking to challenge anyone’s personal political opinion. Discussing the issue and suggesting that you open your mind and heart to new information and new perspectives in accordance to cognitive psychological research is not demanding that you change your mind. Rather, have that new information further influence your opinions with a greater understanding of human thought.

This message has meaning, and I believe this meaning can transcend political positions.

I mean, what’s better than to end the semester with a potentially controversial, political post…

I’m just going to leave it at that.

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2 thoughts on “Bias, heuristics, and judgment: Racial bias and police force

  1. Bri

    I like how you related what we learned in class to what has been happening in our country and connected them in a very descriptive manner. Although many people have different views and opinions it was very brave of you to publish this and I admire this. You had a lot of good information supporting your argument so that it was legitimate. Good job!

  2. kharner

    Thank you for addressing this issue. It is very important. Implicit stereotypes and attitudes are real and racism hasn’t just vanished since the civil rights era. I think most people have implicit attitudes that effect the way they thing about people whether they are aware of it or not. I have taken the IAT for social psychology and there is no denying that our environment, upbringing and the media effect our thoughts. Even if we pride ourselves on being for equality we still have biases and they have to be actively addressed in order to reduce them.

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