Are most people more likely to pull the trigger of a gun if the person they're shooting at is black?
A new meta-analysis set out to answer that question. Yara Mekawi of the University of Illinois and her co-author, Konrad Bresin, drew together findings from 42 different studies on trigger bias to examine whether race affects how likely a target is to be shot.
"What we found is that it does," Mekawi tells NPR's Arun Rath. "In our study we found two main things: First, people were quicker to shoot black targets with a gun, relative to white targets with a gun. And ... people were more trigger-happy when shooting black targets compared to shooting white targets."
That is, shooters weren't just faster to fire at black targets; they were also more likelyto fire at a black target.
On the kinds of studies they were analyzing
Our inclusion criteria was pretty much that they used what's called a first-person shooter task. ... Participants are generally told that police officers are often put in high-stress situations where they have to make very quick shooting decisions.
And so they are presented with images of targets from various races that either have a gun or have some kind of neutral object. So, sometimes it's a soda can; other times it's a cellphone. And what they're told is, to make the decision to shoot when they see a target with a gun.
They are given less than a millisecond to respond, and if they don't respond quickly enough, they get a little error message saying, "Please make the decision faster."
On an additional finding: a correlation between such bias and permissive gun laws
[We] coded the cities in which the data was collected by how permissive the gun laws were. And we used the Brady Law campaign, which gives basically states a score ... being very permissive, this means that, you know, they didn't require background checks in the same way that other, more strict states might or have other limitations on who's allowed to purchase a gun. ...
Basically, what we found was that in states that had relatively permissive gun laws, the shooting threshold for black targets was lower than for white targets.
On theories for why this bias was evident
One theory states, essentially, that when people view images of black targets with a gun, it's what's called "stereotype-consistent," which means that it's something that you expect. And so people typically respond to things more quickly when they're congruent, when they make sense to be together. So that's one theory.
Another theory is that it could be something to do with threat. It could be that individuals perceive black targets as being more threatening. And so they inhibit their shooting behavior less because they're more threatened. So you can think of it as kind of a threatened response.
On the implications for law enforcement
I think, generally speaking, what this highlights is that even though a person might say "I'm not racist" or "I'm not prejudiced," it doesn't necessarily mean that race doesn't influence their split-second decisions.
One implication could be that there could be that there should be education about the fact that these biases exist and that they could be outside of one's control. So even if you think that you're not prejudiced, you're not biased, that doesn't necessarily mean that that's true in terms of split-second decisions that you might make in the real world.
— via NPR News