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What Does Time Perception Have To Do With Racial Disparities?


Researchers have made an attempt to get inside the head of someone who does something that seems racist. What were they thinking? One explanation, of course, is that they're racist. But researchers believe there may sometimes be another explanation. People are trying too hard not to be racist. NPR's social science correspondent, Shankar Vedantam, has been looking at this research. Shankar, how would this work?

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Well, it works in the way that anxiety generally works, Steve. You know, you're afraid of making a mistake; you sometimes become more likely to make a mistake. You're afraid that you're going to mispronounce someone's name on the radio; you become more likely to mispronounce their names on the radio.

INSKEEP: That is true, Shank-ar (ph) - Shankar. And it's the same kind of thing, I guess. You're walking, and somebody says, don't trip; you're likely to trip or a little more likely to trip, I would think.

VEDANTAM: That's exactly right. I was speaking with Gordon Moskowitz. He's a psychologist at Lehigh University. He was interested in whether disparities in fields ranging from how doctors interact with patients to how police officers might shoot unarmed people might be driven by this kind of anxiety.

INSKEEP: Well, let me try to understand this. You're saying that people would get anxious about a racial encounter because they want to get it right. And that would cause them to be more likely to screw it up. But how would you measure somebody's anxiety and whether it affects their behavior in any particular way?

VEDANTAM: So Moskowitz hit on the idea that when you have these kind of anxieties - and especially when your concern is driven by wanting to appear that you're not biased - not necessarily that you are trying very hard internally not to be biased, but you are worried about how other people are perceiving you - your perception of time might change. Professionals use time to make very important judgments. So if you're a police officer confronting someone, for example, you can tell that person to put his hands in the air. But you might perceive a threat if the person doesn't raise his hands in a timely fashion. But what if your time perception is off? What if you think three seconds have passed when only one second has passed? Or think about a patient talking to a doctor. If the doctor thinks she spent 10 minutes talking to the patient but it's only been five, the patient may feel, the doctor isn't really interested in me. Whereas what's really happening is that the doctor's internal clock is off.

INSKEEP: And my clock may get off because I'm anxious? That's what happens?

VEDANTAM: That's right. So the first thing Moskowitz did is he established that some interracial interactions seem to produce these kinds of errors in time perception. In a study that he published last year, he found that when whites who are anxious about appearing biased interact with blacks, whites often perceive time to be moving differently than it actually is. In work that is still being completed, Moskowitz has extended this research to evaluate how people shoot at targets in video games. This is sometimes called a shooter task. You are shown a person on a screen who's holding an object, and you're asked to play a cop. If you judge the person is holding a gun, you should shoot. If you think the person is holding an innocuous object, like a phone, you should hold your fire. Moskowitz is finding that errors in time perception appear to be correlated with making errors on the shooter task.

GORDON MOSKOWITZ: What we are finding is the strongest predictor of whether you have a bias on the shooter task is your perception of time to faces of black men on the time perception task.

VEDANTAM: One thing that he has said that I thought was really interesting is that some of the things we are doing to eliminate, you know, for example police shootings of unarmed suspects might actually be counter-productive. If you put body cams on police officers, that will only exacerbate the anxiety of people who are worried that they might already be appearing racist. And if anxieties are driving their propensity to shoot, you could actually make the problem worse.

INSKEEP: Shankar, thanks very much.

VEDANTAM: Always a pleasure to talk to you, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam, who is also the host of the podcast Hidden Brain. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Shankar Vedantam
Shankar Vedantam is the host and creator of Hidden Brain. The Hidden Brain podcast receives more than three million downloads per week. The Hidden Brain radio show is distributed by NPR and featured on nearly 400 public radio stations around the United States.
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