“I am not naïve enough to think we will eliminate prejudice. People have complex motives that give rise to bias. I want to help inform people about the nature of these biases, and its control, to make them better prepared to deal with it,” says psychology professor Gordon B. Moskowitz.
Moskowitz, who is also chair of the psychology department, isa social psychologistwho has spent the better part of the last two decades “studying things people do of which they are unaware.” He is part of a team of Lehigh professors delving into the way in which people’s unconscious views about police officers and the role of the police shape their reactions to situations involving the police.
The team includes Holona LeAnne Ochs, associate professor and graduate director of political science and interim associate dean of interdisciplinary studies, and Dominic Packer, associate professor of psychology and associate dean for research and graduate programs.Other members of the team include Anthony DiMaggio, assistant professor of political science; Joe Vitriol, postdoctoral researcher; and Scott Hoke, a faculty member at Cedar Crest College.
According to Packer, the group’s collaboration started out as generalconversations among people interested in bias and grew from there. Those initial conversations ultimately became an official jointresearch project titled “Democratic Policing: Bias Reduction and Police-Public Interactions,” supported by a Collaborative Opportunity Research Grant on which Ochs is the principal investigator.
“I read Gordon and Dominic’s work before coming to Lehigh,” Ochs says. “I have used their research in my courses to better understand the cognitive and social processes that undermine what might be better policy design. We’ve always had conversations about our various perspectives on bias reduction and began meeting regularly to think about how we could work together on an interdisciplinary project. This helped us determine the intersections of our perspectives that might be an opportunity to address questions relevant in our different disciplines as well as do something that might benefit the broader community.”
“It started as a set of people interested in bias, fairly generally, and in particular as it might relate to policing. That was one of the things we quickly settled on as an interesting topic,” recalls Packer.
Recently, the team began conducting focus groups with different collections of people around the Lehigh Valley, asking a series of questions centered on how theyview the job of the police in their community.
“Our goal is to get a broad array of perspectives,” Packer adds. “We will talk to anyone who is willing to sit down with us for half an hour, whether they are people who work in a food bank, are part of a neighborhood watch or members of a church.”
The team is also conducting focus groups with police officers, asking them to describe how they see their job.
“As an issue, it is not well understood,” Packer explains. “The potential disjunction between how police understand their jobs and what they are doing and how different communities understand the job of the police—it can be very problematic. It can make the job harder and a lot less safe if there is a disconnect between what the officer thinks and the community thinks.
“We are hoping to determine where there are clear alliances and places where things are not as clearly aligned, where they are not on the same page,” he adds.
A matter of time
For Moskowitz, research stems from the fact that such judgments do not always stem from hate or a desire to dominate others or maintain inequities between groups. He studies a variety of issues relating to how people make judgments about other people “outside of consciousness.”
“These types of judgments,” he explains, “that occur without one intending to judge others, or awareness of having done so, are called automatic or implicit inferences and judgments. The term ‘implicit bias’ refers to when we make judgments about others based on the groups to which they belong—stereotypes and prejudices that get triggered unconsciously.
“Sometimes, even without those motives,” he explains, “and even among people with the opposite motives—to be fair and egalitarian—the simple need to understand what other people are like and to predict what they are likely to say and do so you can prepare your own appropriate behavior gives rise to a reliance on categories and stereotypes, even without one realizing it.”
Moskowitz also studies how people can control these automatic responses.
“Since they occur without consciousness, it is tempting to conclude there is nothing that can be done about these types of biases,” he says.
Most recently, Moskowitz has explored the stresses of cross-race relations.
“For each party, there are concerns that don’t arise in same-race interactions that make people nervous and awkward,” he explains. “These include thoughts such as ‘Will I say something inappropriate?,’ ‘Am I being judged?’ and ‘Will others think I am prejudiced?’”
Neuroscientists have demonstrated that these concerns cause a person to experience a given period of time as longer than it actually is. For example, the stress felt by a white person when interacting with a black person will slow their perception of time so that they overestimate the length of the encounter.
This idea may help to explain research findings in the medical field that report white doctors spending less time with black patients, according to Moskowitz.
“While it seemed possible such doctors might dislike the patients,” he says, “there also seemed to be the possibility something else was at work, something less consciously intended. Perhaps they spend less time because a five-minute intake interview feels like 10 minutes. Perhaps it is not avoidance and dislike at the heart of the disparity in treatment; perhaps it is an honest perceptual error arising from arousal of not wanting to appear biased.
“This is a great irony—it suggests that among people very concerned with not appearing biased, there is an arousal that might introduce a subtle bias in how they treat people,” he adds.
Tying things back to community policing, Moskowitz says that a police officer who has the goal of not appearing biased or being seen by others as racist will become anxious when entering a racially charged situation.
“If that arousal slows time, then one second may seem like several seconds. Given that decisions to use deadly force get made in these short intervals, it would suggest that the goal of not wanting to be biased might make one shoot sooner. The added anxiety would slow time and make it feel as if it is now time to use force,” Moskowitz says.
My goal is to see the scientists who actually have the expertise being more involved in policy issues and in corporate attempts to meet the challenge.