People overestimate the size of black men, perceive them as more threatening than white men, study finds

People gather in July 2015 at the Staten Island memorial site for Eric Garner on the one-year anniversary of his death.
People gather in July 2015 at the Staten Island memorial site for Eric Garner on the one-year anniversary of his death.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

People consistently perceive black men to be bigger and more muscular than they actually are — and as more of a threat — than they do white men of the same size, a new study shows.

The findings, presented in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, shed light on the deadly link that such misconceptions might have to police shootings of unarmed black men.

“Across a range of different stimuli and dependent variables, perceivers showed a consistent and strong bias to perceive young Black men as larger and more capable of harm than young White men (at least among non-Black participants),” the study authors wrote. “Such perceptions may have disturbing consequences for how both civilians and law enforcement personnel perceive and behave toward Black individuals.”


Black men and women are physically stereotyped in many contexts — described as “natural” athletes instead of “intelligent” ones, for example, or able to bear inordinate amounts of pain and suffering in depictions in entertainment and pop culture.

“Black people are often dehumanized but also super-humanized; this means that people will attribute superhuman characteristics to black people,” said lead author John Paul Wilson, a social psychologist at Montclair State University in New Jersey. “So we actually wondered if this stereotype might be powerful enough that it would even show up in a pretty basic way — in concrete perceptions of others’ physical characteristics.”

In a series of experiments, the researchers tested whether study participants viewed white and black men differently, even when they were largely of the same height and weight. For example, when shown individual images of 45 white and 45 black faces taken from a college football recruiting website, participants estimated the black football players’ heights and weights to be higher than those of the white players (even though, incidentally, the white players were ever-so-slightly taller and heavier than the black players pictured).

“I don’t think most black men or kids or parents would really be too surprised to read about these results either,” Wilson said. “I think it’s a finding that would ring true to many. But we did think that, regardless of that … it was important to do this work and I think it’s important to continue to follow up on it.”

Other rounds of the experiment showed that black men were also perceived as stronger and more muscular than equivalent white men, with more upper body strength (a proxy for fighting ability).

The scientists next asked participants to imagine themselves in a fight with one of the men whose faces were pictured in the previous study. Overall, the participants gauged black men to be “more capable of harm” than white men, even though the scientists had equalized both white and black men for size.


“The results strongly suggest that this race-based bias in perceived formidability results from perceivers’ beliefs about race (i.e., stereotypes), rather than an accurate inference of physical size based on facial cues,” the authors wrote. “This serves as initial evidence that biased judgments of size may influence downstream inferences of physical capabilities.”

So if people perceive black men to be more harmful, do they also think it’s more justifiable to use force against them? To probe that question, a following experiment asked participants to imagine each of the white and black faces as belonging to a man who was unarmed but behaving aggressively with a police officer, and then judge whether it was appropriate to use force to subdue him.

Their answers revealed that, as the scientists had suspected, participants judged the use of force as more appropriate against a black man than against a white one.

“People judged Black men as larger and more harmful than White men, thus rendering them more suitable recipients of physical force,” the researchers wrote.

The scientists included black participants in some experiments, finding that they also seemed to rate the black men in the images as larger than the white men — which means they may have also absorbed this cultural stereotype. They did not, however, expect black men to be more capable of harm, as the white and other nonblack study participants did.

“Thus, although Black individuals may have learned the same cultural stereotypes about the size of Black men,” the scientists noted, “they do not seem to apply these misperceptions the same way that non-Black people do.”

The scientists also found that men with more stereotypically “Afrocentric” features — whether they were black or white – were also rated higher on the “formidability” scale by study participants.

“Such perceptions can have dangerous consequences,” the scientists pointed out. “For example, participants in a first-person shooter task mistakenly shot unarmed White targets who looked less prototypically White and more Afrocentric-looking individuals may be punished more severely in court even to the point of execution.”

When police officers shoot unarmed black men, the justifications given after the fact typically involve descriptions of the victim’s size and formidability — and those descriptions often turn out to have been wildly inaccurate. Among the many examples littering the news in recent years, the scientists pointed to Dontre Hamilton, shot 14 times by a white police officer in Milwaukee who testified that Hamilton was “muscular” and “most definitely would have overpowered … me or pretty much any officer I can think of.” Hamilton, according to his autopsy, was just 5-foot-7 and weighed 169 pounds.

“Unfortunately, we don’t yet have much in the way of solutions,” Wilson said. “I certainly would hope that in the future we could get to a place where we are able to make recommendations of how to counteract this bias.”

Wilson was quick to note that these were lab studies on laypeople; still, the findings may be able to inform how we think about the police use of force in these situations.

“I would also hope to in the future work with the police, for example,” he added. “I think it’s important that we bring our science to the public and form partnerships with various types of stakeholders, certainly including police departments.”

Wilson emphasized that this race-based size and threat bias was not strongly predicted by explicit racial prejudice; that is, people who may not consider themselves racist may also be operating under these assumptions.

“This is not just about people having some kind of racial animus,” he said. Being aware that these biases may be influencing our perceptions, he added, is a first step to dealing with them. “If you’re aware that people tend to show this bias, it may trigger you to think about whether the reality, the perceptions that you are experiencing, are objective. Because we often know that our perceptions are not that objective.”

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