This research tests a novel social psychological explanation which focuses on police-citizen interactions. Specifically, in police encounters, innocent Blacks might be concerned about being judged unfairly because of stereotypes depicting them as prone to crime. Such "stereotype threat" produces anxiety and arousal, leads individuals to manage their behavior, and increases demands on cognitive resources. Ironically, however, these correlates produce the same nonverbal behaviors that police use to distinguish liars from truth-tellers. Thus, threatened Blacks might be more likely than non-threatened Whites to behave in ways that police perceive as suspicious. The researchers will test whether stereotype threat and its correlates explain differences in the frequency with which Blacks and Whites engage in deceptive-looking behavior. Pre- and post-tests will assess whether a staged police encounter differentially affects Blacks' and Whites' feelings of stereotype threat, anxiety, physiological arousal, self-regulation, and cognitive load. Videotapes of the encounter will be coded to determine whether participants engaged in nonverbal behaviors commonly perceived as deceptive (e.g., gaze aversion, fidgeting).

The unwarranted disparate treatment of different racial groups can undermine the legitimacy of the police and prevent them from being effective. Findings from the current research will inform future research on curbing Blacks' experiences of stereotype threat in police encounters and preventing effects on nonverbal behavior from translating into racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

Project Report

One of the most frequent complaints minorities have about the criminal justice system is bias-based policing—the use of race as a basis for law enforcement decisions. Although racial bias and cultural stereotypes depicting African Americans as criminals set the stage for biased policing, they also likely have effects on Black citizens that ultimately and ironically contribute to the unwarranted disparate treatment of racial groups. The researchers examined whether social psychological theory on stereotype threat provides an explanation for why police officers are more likely to suspect Black than White individuals. They theorized that, unlike Whites, innocent Black individuals experience stereotype threat in police encounters, which in turn causes Blacks to experience greater arousal related to anxiety, self-regulatory efforts, and cognitive load, and consequently, to display more nonverbal behaviors associated with deception. These racial differences in nonverbal behaviors could, in turn, contribute to police officers' decisions to target Blacks as suspects disproportionately more often than Whites. The researchers tested the former mediational hypotheses in a staged encounter with a White security officer. As hypothesized, African Americans experienced more stereotype threat than Whites. Further, this effect was found only when the security officer was portrayed as investigating a crime, not when he was asking for directions to a diversity training meeting (i.e., only when the criminal stereotype was relevant to the situation). Although stereotype threat did not translate into racial differences in a variety of quantifiable nonverbal behaviors (e.g., frequency of smiles, gestures, etc.), it did lead Blacks to appear more nervous overall as compared to Whites. Further, all participants appeared more nervous when the security officer was investigating a crime than when he was asking for directions. This research extends stereotype threat theory to the new domain of police encounters, and suggests that it could influence behavior in ways that ironically increase the likelihood that African Americans in particular will be perceived by police suspicious.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Social and Economic Sciences (SES)
Standard Grant (Standard)
Application #
Program Officer
Susan Sterett
Project Start
Project End
Budget Start
Budget End
Support Year
Fiscal Year
Total Cost
Indirect Cost
University of Illinois at Chicago
United States
Zip Code