Journal of Experimental Criminology

, Volume 10, Issue 3, pp 323–340 | Cite as

Racial and ethnic bias in decisions to shoot seen through a stronger lens: experimental results from high-fidelity laboratory simulations

  • Lois JamesEmail author
  • David Klinger
  • Bryan Vila



Research on racial bias in the United States includes findings that Americans tend to view blacks as more dangerous than whites. Some have argued that this bias provides a likely explanation for the disproportionate number of ethnic and racial minorities shot by police. One piece of evidence for this proposition comes from experimental work in which research participants push “shoot” or “don’t shoot” buttons when still images of people and objects that may or may not be weapons are presented in rapid succession. These studies have established that participants tend to subconsciously pair black individuals with weapons and white individuals with neutral objects. However, it is not clear from these studies that the subconscious racial bias identified by researchers affects actual decisions to shoot, perhaps because the techniques used to assess the bias-shooting link bear so little resemblance to real-world shootings.


This paper reports on the results of a novel laboratory experiment designed to overcome this critical limitation by using high-fidelity deadly force judgment and decision-making simulators to assess both subconscious and behavioral bias among 48 research participants, recruited from the general population.


Study results suggest that subconscious associations between race and threat exhibited by participants are not linked to their shooting behavior.


The implications of this finding for understanding how race and ethnicity affect decisions to shoot, and for conducting empirical research on this important topic, are discussed.


Unconscious bias Behavioral bias Race/ethnicity Decisions to shoot 



Research supported by Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency contract nos. NBCHC070101 and NBCHC090054, National Institute of Justice grant no. 2008-IJ-CX-0015, and Office of Naval Research DURIP grant no. N000140810802.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Washington State UniversitySpokaneUSA
  2. 2.University of Missouri-St. LouisMissouri-St. LouisUSA

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