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TikTok: What Race Reveals About Biased Attitudes

How anti-Black bias plays out in the first-person shooter task

By Ben Rein

Trayvon Martin was an unarmed teenager when he was murdered in Sanford, Florida. This mural on an East New York laundromat celebrates his life and struggles in a neighborhood where so many young Black men have met violent ends. Credit: Alamy

“You’re a police officer, and you have to either shoot or not shoot the following targets based on whether or not they’re armed. Sounds easy enough, right? Go!"

@dr.brein How did you do? 🚔 THIS is implicit bias. ________ This video was supported by the Pulitzer Center through the Truth Decay Grant Initiative, in collaboration with OpenMind Magazine. To read more about this topic, check out the accompanying article on OpenMind’s website, found in my bio 🔗. #PulitzerCenter #psychology #firstpersonshooter #scicomm #implicit #bias #science #research ♬ original sound - Dr. Ben Rein

The first-person shooter task, often used in psychology studies, has helped psychologists reveal something disturbing: People are much more likely to make the mistake of shooting an unarmed target when they’re Black.

It’s a very clear finding, it has been replicated over and over, and what’s maybe most concerning is that it often happens beneath people’s awareness. It’s an example of something called implicit bias, which is when we hold deeply embedded negative judgments or attitudes. And worse, even when we’re aware of this bias, it’s “sticky”: It sticks around even when we try to correct our behavior.

Removing implicit bias generally requires changing the environment or building guardrails into a system to reduce the risk. For example, students or police officers with training are less likely to shoot unarmed Black targets. Other studies have shown that even just having people imagine stereotypes that are counterintuitive, like asking men to picture a strong, powerful woman, has been shown to reduce implicit bias.

And fun fact, studies also show that when white people are given oxytocin or “the love hormone” it also reduces their likelihood to shoot Black targets.

Although awareness alone may not stop implicit bias, I hope that this video might make you recognize it more and try to find ways to build systems against it. Bias doesn’t make you a bad person, it just makes you human. We all divide the world into categories, but you can always become a better human.

If you want to play the real version of this task used in the studies, go here:

December 20, 2023

Ben Rein

PhD, is a Stanford-trained neuroscientist who worked in Robert Malenka’s lab. He currently serves as the Chief Science Officer of the Mind Science Foundation.

Editor’s Note

OpenMind is thrilled to be partnering with neuroscientist and science communicator Ben Rein on a series of TikToks as part of our "Misinformation in Mind" project. In this video, Ben focuses on the first-person shooter task, a psychology exercise that reveals dangerous levels of implicit bias against people of color, something that plays out on the streets of America again and again. (You can also view this video on Ben Rein's Instagram.)

This TikTok accompanies an essay on the same topic by Jyoti Madhusoodanan, who reveals how truly entrenched some prejudices remain—and new techniques psychologists have found for returning fairness to the workplace and (perhaps ultimately) safety to the streets.

Our misinformation series includes five other essays, along with related podcasts and videos on topics ranging from the myths of trans science to the elusive nature of expertise. It's all part of OpenMind's "Misinformation in Mind" project, supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center's Truth Decay initiative.

Corey S. Powell and Pamela Weintraub, co-editors, OpenMind

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