Sal McKeown welcomes new research into crisis decision-making

Imagine you're an armed police officer facing a life-or-death decision. A split second could change someone's life forever. New research shows that a single heartbeat can dictate the outcome – especially when the crisis involves a black person.

That's the finding of new research which has implications for the training of police and security forces. It is published today (January 17) in the online academic journal, Nature Communications.

The report, "Cardiac afferent activity modulates the expression of racial stereotypes" (PDF version here), is the product of research undertaken by scientists at Royal Holloway, University of London, working with Brighton and Sussex Medical School (BSMS). Research participants were shown glimpses of pictures of both black and white people holding either a gun or a mobile phone.

Decision taken 'on' a heartbeat is 10% more likely to be questionable

At the exact moment of the heartbeat, participants were 10 per cent more likely to 'see' the phone as a gun when it was held by a black person. Between heartbeats, their perception was more accurate.

The investigation was led by Professor Manos Tsakiris and Dr Ruben Azevedo from Royal Holloway, University of London and The Warburg Institute at the School of Advanced Study (also University of London). It builds on earlier research at Brighton and Sussex Medical School (BSMS), led by Professor Hugo Critchley and Dr Garfinkel, which showed that on each heartbeat (known as cardiac systole), the heart fires powerful signals to the brain.

Between heartbeats (cardiac diastole), these signals are silent. This study shows that the ‘systole’ signals alongside a perceived potential threat increase the risk of errors of judgement.

Statistics show that black Americans are more than twice as likely as white Americans to be unarmed when killed during encounters with police (see Guardian’s "Black Americans killed by police twice as likely to be unarmed as white people"). There is psychological research to show that university students and police officers are more likely to misidentify harmless objects as weapons when they are associated with a black person.

Consequently, in laboratory simulations, they are more likely to ‘shoot’ unarmed black people. Although these studies highlight factors that may influence this biased behaviour, the precise underlying physiological mechanism has remained largely unknown until now.

Professor Tsakiris, seconded to Warburg from Royal Holloway's Department of Psychology, explained: "There is much existing evidence to show that people are more likely to misidentify harmless objects as weapons when held by black people. Recent events have brought this bias to the fore, where black Americans are more than twice as likely as white Americans to be killed during encounters with the police."

'Reduce the number of tragedies caused by racial bias'

BLM demoBlack Lives Matter rally in Sheffield, July 2016 — photo Katelyn McKeownProfessor Critchley from BSMS said: “We can use it to think about potential ways to target this heart-brain communication to reduce the number of tragedies caused by racial bias.”

The new research is likely to be of particular interest to activist organisations like Black Lives Matter UK and to the families of Mark Duggan, Jermaine Baker, and Azelle Rodney, all shot by British police.

Natalie Jeffers, co-founder of Black Lives Matter UK, will undoubtedly take heed of this research. She recently told The Guardian (“Why activists brought the Black Lives Matter movement to the UK”) "In Britain somebody dies every six days in police custody, not just black people. But black people are over-represented in these cases. As is mental health – if a black man has a mental health episode, police are more likely to see that as a show of aggression than if a white person has the same episode."

Figures published in August 2015 show black people are more likely to be stopped and searched than whites in the areas covered by almost every police force in England and Wales. An analysis by The Independent (“Black people still far more likely to be stopped and searched by police than other ethnic groups”) revealed that in 36 of the 39 forces surveyed, black people were targeted more often than their white fellow citizens, and in Dorset a black person was 17 times more likely to be stopped and searched than a white person.

In the context of widespread racism, a report that warns that, in stress situations, a single biological factor can intensify the problem by a factor of 10 per cent has to be taken seriously.

If the research helps to cut the number of violent deaths for black people it will be most welcome. The danger is that the white community and politicians may see it as a way of explaining away an unacceptable loss of life without facing up to the issue of racism.

Sal McKeownSal McKeown is a freelance journalist covering disability, education and technology. She was CIPR Business Education Journalist of the year 2015 

More information 

"Cardiac afferent activity modulates the expression of racial stereotypes’" (download PDF version here) is published today, January 17, in the online journal Nature Communications
Professor Manos Tsakiris
Dr Ruben Azevedo
Royal Holloway
The Warburg Institute
School of Advanced Study
Black Lives Matter UK