Melanie Tannenbaum writes over at SciAm about the psychology behind split-second decisions
like the one George Zimmerman made when he shot Trayvon Martin. George Zimmerman did not make a split-second decision, that was the wrong wording, and a bad lede into the study, which is about split-second reactions.
A 2002 study put college students in a similar situation and measured their ability to make snap judgements of whether to shoot:
Groups of college students were told that a series of people would come on the screen in front of them and would either be holding a gun or a neutral object, like a wallet, aluminum can, or cell phone. If the participants correctly shot an armed target, they would receive 10 points; if they correctly did not shoot an unarmed target, they would receive 5 points. Shooting an unarmed target deducted 20 points, and not shooting an armed target – the most potentially dangerous outcome for a real police officer on the streets – would result in the harshest penalty of all, a 40-point deduction.
As each target appeared on screen, participants had to decide as quickly as possible if the target was holding a gun or a harmless object, and subsequently whether to shoot or not shoot by pushing a “shoot” or “don’t shoot” button. Unbeknownst to participants, the researchers had manipulated one critical feature of the targets – some of the targets were White and some were Black.
You can probably guess what the results were, but the psychology might surprise you. It turns out that a person does not have to carry overt racist feelings to make a mistake in this situation. The results showed that merely being aware of racial prejudice spawned shooter bias, no matter if the shooter’s perspective on the prejudice was positive or negative.
By all indications, George Zimmerman is an overtly racist man, and that lies at the heart of this tragedy. But this study raises an important point: One does not have to be overtly racist to make the same mistake. Check out Melanie’s full post and see what you think.
Edit: Like I anticipated, some people aren’t getting the point of this article. George Zimmerman is a racist who murdered an unarmed black boy. This is a psychological study that says that the same thing can happen, in a simulation, without overt racism. This is not a defense of Zimmerman, because he is indefensible.