How Prior Information and Police Experience Impact Decisions to Shoot

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Abstract

Social psychologists have relied on computerized shooting tasks to test whether race influences decisions to shoot. These studies reveal that under some conditions untrained individuals shoot unarmed Black men more than unarmed White men. We modeled the decision to shoot as a sequential sampling process in which people start out with prior biases and accumulate evidence over time until a threshold is reached, prompting a decision. We used this approach to test how prior information (a proxy for police dispatch information) and police experience influence racial bias in shooting decisions. When no prior information was given, target race biased the rate at which untrained civilians accumulated evidence, leading to a greater rate of shooting Black targets. For sworn police officers, the race of the target impacted prior bias, but not evidence accumulation. Moreover, officers showed no race bias in the observed decision to shoot. For both untrained civilians and sworn police officers, prior information about a target’s race was sufficient to eliminate racial bias in shooting decisions both at the process and behavioral level. These studies reveal that factors present in real-world shooting decisions (dispatch information and police experience) can moderate the role that race plays both in the underlying cognitive processes and ultimately on the observed decision. We discuss the benefits of using a dynamic cognitive model to understand the decision to shoot and the implications of these results for laboratory analogues of real-world decisions.

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