Study: We Think Black Men Are Bigger Than White Men (even when they're not)

CNN/Stylemagazine.com Newswire | 3/14/2017, 1:42 p.m.
When we look at black men, what is and what we see are often different things. Namely, we may see ...

By AJ Willingham

CNN

(CNN) -- When we look at black men, what is and what we see are often different things. Namely, we may see black men as bigger, stronger, and scarier than white men, even if they are the same size.

In a new body of research published by the American Psychological Association, 950 online participants from the US were asked to rate black and white men based on their weight, height, strength and build.

"We found that these estimates were consistently biased. Participants judged the black men to be larger, stronger and more muscular than the white men, even though they were actually the same size," said the study's lead author, John Paul Wilson, of Montclair State University.

The findings got even more ominous from there. Not only did participants distort the size of the men, they also identified the black men as, essentially, more of a threat deserving of force.

"Participants also believed that the black men were more capable of causing harm in a hypothetical altercation and, troublingly, that police would be more justified in using force to subdue them, even if the men were unarmed," Wilson said.

Skin tone and facial variations made a difference

There were more fascinating and concerning patterns in the study's findings:

Both white and black participants overestimated the size and strength of black men, but black participants did not label them as more dangerous or likely to deserve police force during an altercation

Black men with darker skin and more pronounced "black" facial features (wide nose, large lips, etc) were subject to more distortion. "We found that men with darker skin and more stereotypically black facial features tended to be most likely to elicit biased size perceptions, even though they were actually no larger than men with lighter skin and less stereotypical facial features," Wilson said .

Results have unnerving implications

It's not hard to see where these results could be applied -- the size and perceived strength of black victims of violence has figured into many prominent cases, including the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown and the 2014 shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was characterized as "menacing."

To that last point, this study's findings also parallel a similar study published in the APA in 2014 that found people view black boys as older and less innocent than white boys.

The authors of this study say their findings could be used to further explore the role of stereotypes in social behavior and the application of police force.