When Prejudice Makes Time Slow Down

An experiment suggests a source of racial bias in job interviews, visits to the doctor, and confrontations with police.
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(Photo: arindambanerjee/Shutterstock)

(Photo: arindambanerjee/Shutterstock)

There are moments when time seems to slow down for the average person—a first kiss, a tense moment in a baseball game, a job interview. For a cop with his finger on his trigger, that moment can come when aiming at someone who may or may not be reaching for a gun.

That's (sort of) the focus of a new study that suggests time slows down a bit when whites look at blacks' faces—if those whites are feeling pressure to compensate for racial bias, that is—with potentially life-and-death consequences.

"[I]magine a police officer needing to gauge the time in which a minority suspect must respond before force is exerted," psychologists Gordon Moskowitz, Irmak Okten, and Cynthia Gooch write in Psychological Science. "The perceived difference of a half second could determine whether shots are fired."

Students who reported feeling the most pressure to control prejudices also perceived time running about 10 percent more slowly when looking at black faces, but about five percent more slowly when looking at white faces.

Most Americans harbor racial biases whether they know it or not, likely perpetuated by news coverage of crime. This has unsettling consequences. Experiments show, for example, that people are less hesitant to shoot at blacks than whites in hypothetical police confrontations. Biases are hard to shake too. Trying to suppress negative stereotypes can backfire, resulting in more salient prejudices and potentially strong emotional responses.

Wondering whether such emotions might mess with our sense of time—and what the downstream consequences might be—Moskowitz, Okten, and Gooch first had 40 Lehigh University undergraduates take a questionnaire to measure how much pressure they feel to control their own prejudices. Then, they showed the students a series of simple shapes on a computer screen for 600 milliseconds, each followed by either a black face, a white face, or another random shape for periods between 300 and 1,200 milliseconds. Afterwards, the students had to say whether the first object or the "comparison object"—either the faces or the second shape—had been shown for a longer period of time.

The results showed that students who reported feeling the most pressure to control prejudices also perceived time running about 10 percent more slowly when looking at black faces, but about five percent more slowly—statistically indistinguishable from no slowdown at all—when looking at white faces. Students who scored low on the external pressure test perceived time the same whether the faces were black or white.

External motivation to reduce or control prejudice could have the biggest impact on police officers, who as a group are under increased scrutiny for racial bias. "Dire consequences" could result if it seems like a black person is taking longer to respond compared to whites, the authors argue. But the problem could extend into other domains, such as job interviews or visits to the doctor: If a black candidate seems like they're taking longer to respond, the interview could turn awkward, potentially resulting in relatively fewer black hires and inferior medical care, the researchers write.

Quick Studies is an award-winning series that sheds light on new research and discoveries that change the way we look at the world.

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