Does anger effect racial biases during a weapon identification task?

small pictures of weapons and harmless objectsRace-based policing and shooter bias (e.g., stereotypes influencing a decision to shoot) in the United States continues to cause unjustified loss of lives and harm to communities. Two psychological effects, the threat superiority effect (a natural inclination to quickly identify threatening vs. non-threatening objects) and the weapon bias effect (a tendency to misidentify harmless objects as weapons when paired with Black faces), have been found to play a part in race-based shooter bias.

A group of UMass Amherst psychology researchers including PhD Candidate Adrian Rivera-Rodriguez, Senior Research Fellow Ahren Fitzroy, and Professors Nilanjana Dasgupta and Lisa Sanders examined how anger effects attention, inhibition, and error processing during a weapon identification task. Two groups of participants in the study, one displaying neutral emotion and another made to feel angry, were quickly shown an image of a Black or White, male or female face followed immediately by an image of either a weapon or harmless object. Participants were then prompted to identify the object.

There were two competing hypotheses about how anger could impact people's performance on this task. The stereotype activation hypothesis (based off previous research studies) imparts that angry participants would be more likely to rely on stereotypes associating Black faces with threat and danger, and so the connections made between Black faces and weapons would be stronger.

 PhD Candidate Adrian Rivera-Rodriguez
PhD Candidate Adrian Rivera-Rodriguez

However, the goal attainment motivation hypothesis suggests that anger can motivate the individual to want to perform the best they can in whatever situation they're in. Rivera-Rodriguez conveys, “think about sports, maybe a player gets angry on the court and all of a sudden they're performing way better than they were because they're motivated to overcome whatever made them angry or prove someone wrong.”

Participants were measured for the occurrence of event-related potentials (ERPs), or electrical voltages generated by different brain regions in response to specific events or stimuli. Using electroencephalography (EEG) to assess the voltages, several measures of both attention and decision-making were recorded as participants engaged in the task.

The ERP measurements used included automatic attention (more cognitive resources being given to a stimulus), sustained attention (being vigilant to that stimulus), and inhibition (deciding to pay closer attention to something or not). Measures of automatic error detection (an almost instant alert to an error), and conscious awareness error detection (realizing that you made an error) were also collected.

Participants in the neutral emotion condition (those who were made to feel calm) were found to be putting more cognitive resources towards being vigilant to Black faces. Also, showing White faces elicited greater inhibition, so neutral participants were engaging in more cognitive control—they were looking more attentively at the object being shown after a White face.

Participants selected for the anger condition initially performed a writing assignment where they imagined a time from the past that made them especially angry. After these angry emotions were induced, they continued on to the main task.

In contrast to the neutral emotion group, angry participants did not show increased vigilance to black faces. They were treating black and white faces the same and showing low levels of vigilance overall. This is a better scenario for test accuracy because less cognitive resources are being diverted away from weapon identification. Also, angry participants did not seem to be engaging in inhibition processes based on racial cues.

In the final results of the study, the researchers didn't find the weapon bias effect (i.e., participants had made implicit racially biased mistakes) as they anticipated. “One possibility of why we didn't get this effect is that the associations we've seen in previous weapon identification tests is really dependent on this association people are making between Black male faces and weapons like handguns. It could be that this link is not as strong for female faces and some of these other weapon types are not as closely linked to Black faces,” Rivera-Rodriguez notes.

The research team did discover a threat superiority effect—people were faster and more accurate at recognizing actual weapons versus harmless objects. Overall, the stereotype activation hypothesis was expected to be supported, but instead the goal attainment motivation hypothesis was proven. Angered subjects were driven to perform well.

It’s important to note that this research differs from real-world police interactions in that all study participants were college students in a non-life-threatening situation. Anger was induced in a lab, based on the participant’s personal memories. It was not targeted at a specific face or individual. In future studies, if anger could be directed specifically at a face or person, stereotypes could emerge as biased attention patterns.

“We're seeing that goal attainment motivation is good for you, it leads to less activation of these biased attention orientation patterns towards racial cues,” says Rivera-Rodriguez.

“There are other ways we can go about priming goal attainment motivation; for example, we can use positive valence emotions. I think these findings raise interesting questions for future research to consider when exploring how emotions might motivate the activation or inhibition of racial bias.”