Research suggests wearing a police uniform changes the way the brain processes info

February 10, 2017, McMaster University
A sample of a police-style uniform worn by study participants. Credit: McMaster University

New research from a team of cognitive neuroscientists at McMaster University suggests that simply putting on a uniform, similar to one the police might wear, automatically affects how we perceive others, creating a bias towards those considered to be of a low social status.

The study, recently published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, raises important questions about stereotypes and profiling, and about how the symbolic power and authority associated with uniforms might affect these tendencies.

"We all know that the police generally do an excellent job, but there has also been a great deal of public discourse about biased policing in North America over recent years," says Sukhvinder Obhi, an associate professor of Psychology, Neuroscience & Behaviour and senior author of the study, which was conducted with postdoctoral researcher Ciro Civile.

"We set out to explore whether the uniform itself might have an impact, independent of all other aspects of the police subculture, training or work experiences," he says.

Across a series of experiments, researchers examined how -all of them university students—shifted their attention during specific tasks. In some cases, participants wore police-style attire.

During one experiment, participants were asked to identify a simple shape on a computer screen and were distracted by images of white male faces, black male faces, individuals dressed in business suits and others dressed in hoodies. Researchers tracked and analyzed their reaction times to compare how long they were distracted by the various images.

A photo of a police-style uniform worn by study participants. Credit: McMaster University

Researchers were surprised to find no difference in and no evidence of racial profiling when the distractors were white or black faces. This is surprising, they say, because previous research, much of it conducted in the United States, has revealed that many people associate African Americans with crime.

While more work is needed to explore this further, Obhi suggests the apparent lack of racial bias in the current study might highlight a potentially important difference between Canadian and American society.

The differences, however, were revealed when participants were distracted by photos of individuals wearing hoodies. Reaction times slowed, indicating that the images of hoodies were attention-grabbing. Critically, this bias towards hoodies only occurred when participants were wearing the police-style garb.

"We know that clothing conveys meaning and that the hoodie has to some extent become a symbol of lower social standing and inner-city youth," says Obhi. "There is a stereotype out there that links hoodies with crime and violence, and this stereotype might be activated to a greater degree when donning the police style uniform. This may have contributed to the changes in attention that we observed. Given that attention shapes how we experience the world, attentional biases toward certain groups of people can be problematic."

This is especially important for police officers, he explains, who might unconsciously perceive a threat where one doesn't exist or vice versa.

Researchers hope to study the uniform and its effect on and are conducting follow-up studies with collaborators in the United States.

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8 comments

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dan42day
5 / 5 (2) Feb 10, 2017
It would be interesting to do the same experiment with people wearing hoodies or other attire associated with lower social status or crime and see if it affects their level of distraction by people wearing police uniforms.

I suspect that we are aware of the image that our attire projects, and it's effect on others who choose to project conflicting images.
Anonym
not rated yet Feb 11, 2017
Not news of course, The famous Stanford Prison Experiment in the '70s randomly assigned grad students to be either prisoners or guards for a proposed two-week study of immersion role-playing. The experiment had to be stopped after only one week due to the psychological damage to both "prisoners" and "guards" playing the roles --- the student volunteers completely forgot they were playing roles!
ab3a
not rated yet Feb 11, 2017
Has it occurred to the good professors that wearing ANY well known uniform affects the way people act and are perceived? Wearing a suit versus wearing jeans, T-Shirt, and a hard-hat? How about wearing a soldiers fatigues? How about a Lab Coat?

Do the clothes make the person, or does the person wear the clothes? Maybe it's a bit of both.
MR166
1 / 5 (1) Feb 12, 2017
""We all know that the police generally do an excellent job, but there has also been a great deal of public discourse about biased policing in North America over recent years," "

Charles Barkley has explained the situation to a tee, "bad stuff happens when you resist arrest". More people are shot each year in Chicago than all of US soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan to date. How would you like to be a policeman patrolling those streets?
MR166
1 / 5 (1) Feb 12, 2017
I saw a New York City police training video years back that really enlightened me. Police were telling a suspect to keep his hands up and stay still. He continued to act nervous with a lot of hand movement but they were mostly up. He moves as before and then just like a magician distracts you, draws a gun and fires. Of course this was a staged encounter but it did prove a valuable point about the danger involved.
TheGhostofOtto1923
5 / 5 (2) Feb 13, 2017
"We all know that the police generally do an excellent job, but there has also been a great deal of public discourse about biased policing in North America over recent years"

-BECAUSE we had an election coming up and people were being polarized on purpose. Didnt work very well did it? Dems lost at every level. Whos bright idea was that?
Pengition
not rated yet Feb 13, 2017
"I saw a New York City police training video years back that really enlightened me. Police were telling a suspect to keep his hands up and stay still. He continued to act nervous with a lot of hand movement but they were mostly up. He moves as before and then just like a magician distracts you, draws a gun and fires. Of course this was a staged encounter but it did prove a valuable point about the danger involved."

It's a small wonder that we have issues with cops nowadays when they're being trained to be afraid of guns (warranted or not) in the most mundane situations.
MR166
1 / 5 (1) Feb 13, 2017
"It's a small wonder that we have issues with cops nowadays when they're being trained to be afraid of guns (warranted or not) in the most mundane situations."

While I am extremely pro 2nd amendment I can easily understand where police can be spooked by the possibility of a suspect having a gun. There are many cities in the US where people would not think twice about shooting a cop or even you for that matter. In fact it would be something to brag about.

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