The Black Lives Matter protests shaking the world have thankfully brought renewed attention not just to police brutality but to the broader role of racism in our society. Research suggests some roots of racism lie in the stereotypes we hold about different groups. And those stereotypes can affect everything from the way police diagnose danger to who gets interviewed for jobs to which students get attention from professors. Negative stereotypes harm Black Americans at every turn. To reduce their pernicious effects, it’s important to first understand how stereotypes work and just how pervasive they are.
Modupe Akinola, an associate professor at Columbia Business School, studies racial bias, workforce diversity and stress. Recently, Katy Milkman, a professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, got to chat with Akinola about how stereotypes are formed, how they affect consequential decisions and how we can combat negative stereotypes.
Let’s start at the beginning. What is a stereotype?
A stereotype is a snap judgment we make about a person or about a thing that can influence our decision-making. Every day we get millions and millions of bits of information in our head that associate good and bad with certain people or groups or things. And anytime we then see those people, groups or things, that association comes immediately to our mind.
Why do you think we do this?
We’re processing so much information all the time; we need these mental shortcuts to allow us to navigate the world. If not, we wouldn’t be able to function, quite frankly. We have to make quick judgments to make life easier and to simplify. But any type of shortcut can have its pros and cons.
Could you talk about some of the research connecting stereotyping with racism?
One of my favorite sets of studies examines stereotyping as it relates to policing. I grew up in New York City. And we heard a lot about Amadou Diallo, who was an unarmed Black man who was shot by police, because they thought he was carrying a gun—when in actuality, he raised his hand, and he had a wallet.
Joshua Correll, [now at the University of Colorado Boulder], and his colleagues wanted to look at whether the stereotypes associating Black people with danger could play a role in how a mistake like that could be made. The news we see regularly shows crime rates being higher for certain populations, mostly minority populations,. And so this creates an automatic stereotype that a Black man would be more linked to danger than a white man, because you don’t see those same associations for white people.
Correll came up with a computerized shooter bias exercise that showed pictures of targets, Black and white men, carrying objects, either weapons or regular objects like a Coke can or a wallet. When you saw a person and the object, you had to click on whether or not to shoot. He found that civilians were more likely to shoot unarmed Black men, relative to unarmed white men and even armed white men, which was attributed to the stereotypes associating Black people with danger.
I found that study fascinating, because it showed just how powerful these associations can be. I did some follow-up research, because I wanted to see if stress affects that decision-making process. I stressed out police officers and had them engage in the shooting exercise.
The interesting thing is: I saw that under stress, officers were more accurate. They were able to discern whether to shoot an armed Black man and did that better in terms of not shooting unarmed Black men. However, they were less likely to shoot armed white men, which I think demonstrates the power of stereotypes, because there isn’t a stereotype of white and danger.
Stereotypes work in two ways: they can harm some groups, and they can protect others.
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