Simply putting on a police-like uniform immediately affects our perceptions toward others, creating a bias towards those considered to be of a low social status, according to a new study by cognitive neuroscientists at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada.
The findings, published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, raise important questions about stereotypes and profiling, and about how the symbolic power and authority associated with police uniforms might affect these tendencies.
“We all know that the police generally do an excellent job, but there has also been a great deal of public discourse about biased policing in North America over recent years,” said Dr. Sukhvinder Obhi, an associate professor of psychology, neuroscience & behaviour and senior author of the study, which was conducted with postdoctoral researcher Ciro Civile, Ph.D.
“We set out to explore whether the uniform itself might have an impact, independent of all other aspects of the police subculture, training or work experiences,” he said.
For the study, researchers recruited university students to participate in a series of experiments. The researchers observed how the students shifted their attention during specific tasks. In some cases, participants were given police-style attire to wear.
During one experiment, the students were asked to identify a simple shape on a computer screen and were distracted by images of white male faces, black male faces, individuals dressed in business suits and others dressed in hoodies. Researchers tracked and analyzed their reaction times to compare how long they were distracted by the various images.
When the distractors were white or black faces, researchers found no difference in reaction times and no evidence of racial profiling. This is surprising, they say, because previous research, much of it conducted in the United States, has suggested that many people associate African-Americans with crime.
While more research is needed to explore this further, Obhi suggests the apparent lack of racial bias in the current Canadian study might highlight a potentially important difference between Canadian and American society.
The differences, however, were revealed when participants were distracted by photos of individuals wearing hoodies. Reaction times slowed, indicating that the images of hoodies were attention-grabbing. Importantly, this bias towards hoodies only happened when participants were wearing the police-like uniforms.
“We know that clothing conveys meaning and that the hoodie has to some extent become a symbol of lower social standing and inner-city youth,” said Obhi. “There is a stereotype out there that links hoodies with crime and violence, and this stereotype might be activated to a greater degree when donning the police style uniform.”
“This may have contributed to the changes in attention that we observed. Given that attention shapes how we experience the world, attentional biases toward certain groups of people can be problematic.”
This is particularly important for police officers, he explains, who might unconsciously see a threat where one doesn’t exist or vice versa.
Researchers hope to study the uniform and its effect on police officers and are conducting follow-up studies with collaborators in the United States.
Source: McMaster University