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Neurocognitive processes linked to perceiving social injustice

People make sense of others’ behavior in common social events and interactions by drawing from agreed upon social and cultural scripts and expectations of how people should act. When confronted with a complex or ambiguous social interaction, however, such as that between a police officer and civilian, people engage in more effortful social cognitive processes to make sense of the situation.

New functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) research published in NeuroImage found that participants show greater social cognitive engagement when viewing an aggressive interaction between a White police officer and Black civilian compared to a White police officer and White civilian.

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Fig. 5.. Note. Whole brain activity focusing on the left pSTS/TPJ, MNIx,y,z = [−51, −66, 0].

“I have been interested in issues of racial bias since I was a child. When I was young, my family moved to a small farming community in Wisconsin to afford a better life. My father is Japanese and French and my mother is Apache and Mexican. The town we moved to was fairly homogenous in terms of race, so I quickly realized my multiracial family was different from the families I saw around me,” said study author Jennifer Kubota, an associate professor at the University of Delaware and a director of the Impression Formation Social Neuroscience Lab.

“The absence of diverse role models and individuals around me fortified my interest in intergroup dynamics. I’m really interested in how we can foster equity and inclusion and mitigate racial bias and other social identity biases. Obviously this is a super complex question that requires thinking about structures as well as individuals and groups. One of my contributions to understanding social identity biases is to use neuroscience, which allows us to take a peek inside our minds and unpack what drives biases in how we think, feel, and behave towards marginalized folks.

“In this study, we were interested in what factors contribute to divergent evaluations of social injustice, in particular social injustice that occurs during aggressive police arrests of Black civilians,” Kubota explained. “How do our brains process social injustice? Who is more likely to be sensitive to social injustice?”

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Fig. 6.. fMRI Participants Ratings of Aggression as a Function of Civilian Race and Evaluative Focus
Note. Each dot represents a participants’ data point. Blue dots represent videos of Black civilians and red dots represent videos of White civilians. Darker dots represent ratings of police officer aggression and lighter dots represent ratings of civilian aggression. The four conditions are labeled first according to the race of the civilian in the video (Black, White) then according to the evaluative focus (police officer, civilian). Vertical lines to the right of each condition are standard deviation error bars with the mean of each condition indicated as a gap in the line. Although Black civilians were rated as less aggressive than White civilians, police officers were rated as most aggressive towards Black civilians. All simple differences were significant. *p ≤ 0.001.

Neuroimaging research has shown that three brain regions are particularly important for the social cognitive processes involved in trying to understand the mental state of others: the temporoparietal junction (TPJ), the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (DMPFC), and the superior temporal sulcus (STS).

In the context of viewing negative interactions between authority figures and civilians from a third person perspective, perceptions of injustice may differ depending on the stereotypes and attitudes a perceiver holds. For example, some people may view a police officer’s use of force as an injustice and others might see it as a legitimate and justifiable act by law enforcement.

“We were specifically interested in mentalizing, also known as theory of mind, which is the process by which people infer the motivations, goals, and intentions of others because this process helps humans make sense of the social world,” Kubota told PsyPost.

For Study 1, the researchers recruited a sample of 69 adult White U.S. residents aged 18 to 35 in the Chicago area using online ads, public transportation ads, and fliers. Participants were screened according to eligibility criteria relevant to brain imaging studies such as having no history of serious head injury, no history of drug abuse, no color vision problems, and no history of developmental or psychological disorders.

Research took place at the MRI Research Center at the University of Chicago. Participants were hooked to an fMRI scanner and viewed a series of short, real-world recordings of White police officers arresting civilians. Half of these depicted Black civilians and the other half depicted White civilians. Videos did not have audio and varied on aggression level from not at all aggressive to extremely aggressive.

After they viewed all the videos in the scanner, participants were taken to a separate room where they viewed the videos again and rated both the officer’s and civilian’s level of aggression, legitimacy of the officer’s actions, and guilt of the civilian.

“We explored how independent ratings of levels of aggression for civilians or police officers modulated brain activity in regions involved in mentalizing when viewing videos with Black civilians versus White civilians interacting with White police officers during arrests,” the researchers explained in their study. “In other words, how does the level of aggression in the interaction impact mentalizing processes when viewing interracial (vs. intraracial) interactions?”

Results show civilian race affected activity in all the relevant brain regions except the DMPFC. Specifically, participants showed increased activity in the left TPJ and bilateral STS for the more aggressive videos that depicted White officers with Black civilians (compared to videos with White officers and White civilians). As for the participants’ post-scan aggression ratings, despite Black civilians being perceived as less aggressive than White civilians, police officers were perceived as more aggressive toward Black civilians compared to White civilians. Participants gave higher guilt ratings of the White civilians than the Black civilians and perceived the officers’ use of force as less legitimate when used on Black civilians compared to White civilians.

Although there were no effects in the DMPFC region in Study 1, the researchers posit this could be due to the importance of the DMPFC in reasoning about a complex social situation. Perhaps since this study did not have participants reason about the presented scenes, they did not observe any differences in the DMPFC region.

Together, results from Study 1 suggest people perceive greater injustice toward Black civilians compared to White civilians during arrests. Kubota and her colleagues posited that these results could be due to the nature of participants viewing the specific videos used. Study 2 then sought to expand on these findings by measuring general judgments of police aggression toward Black vs. White civilians.

For Study 2, the researchers recruited 58 adult White U.S.-based university students to participate. They were asked whether they believed police officers acted unjustly aggressive toward Black and White civilians. Participants indicated that police officers are more often unjustly aggressive toward Black civilians compared to White civilians.

“Our findings suggest a common belief across our U.S. samples that Black Americans receive harsher treatment by law enforcement officers, which in turn leads to greater engagement of brain regions involved in mentalizing when viewing videos of aggressive arrests of Black civilians by White police officers,” Kubota told PsyPost.

“This research is particularly pertinent as the use of dash and body-worn cameras are now frequently mandated and the streaming of live videos on social media is becoming increasingly accessible. These recordings provide community members and witnesses the ability to capture arrests in real-time and disseminate them quickly and widely. These same videos can have considerable impact on human lives, whether through their use as evidence in courtrooms or because of their power to mobilize demonstrations and other actions to secure racial justice in policing.”

“Some folks see an event and claim the actions were entirely legitimate; others see that same interaction as a great injustice,” Kubota said. “Therefore, it is important to understand what factors drive divergent interpretations of these arrests and social injustice more broadly construed.”

The researchers point out some limitations of this work such as the inclusion of only White participants, only U.S.-based samples, and the use of videos that only depict White police officers.

“Our sample was with White Americans who were relatively liberal and motivated to avoid racial bias,” Kubota explained. “So these folks may be more attuned to social injustice during these encounters and may be especially motivated to understand the circumstances surrounding police aggression toward Black civilians.”

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Fig. 1.. Examples of Unblurred (top row) and Blurred Videos (bottom row)
Note. To protect privacy, we have covered faces of the individuals in the unblurred videos with gray dots (top panels). These gray dots do not appear in the actual unblurred videos used in the fMRI study. The blurred contrast-altered images (bottom panels) where civilian race was obscured were used for equating these videos as a function of civilian race on aggression (Dang et al., 2020). During the aggression rating session, participants were asked about aggression for either the police officer or the civilian (“To you, how aggressive does the police officer [civilian] appear to be?” 1 (Not at all aggressive) to 7 (Extremely aggressive”)).

“These studies represent a starting place for much needed research into the perception of social injustice. These findings speak to a general perception among this population of liberal folks motivated to avoid racial bias that police are more likely to unjustly use force against Black civilians. However, findings from this research may not generalize to the perception of police or civilians of different racial or ethnic groups.”

“Similarly, they may not generalize to viewers of different racial or ethnic groups,” Kubota noted. “These videos also do not depict civilians or police officers of different genders, age, social status, or interactions with deadly consequences, which are all factors that could impact how such scenes are construed by perceivers. Also, just because our participants engaged mentalizing processes when viewing aggressive arrests of Black civilians, does not mean this engagement would positively impact behavior or increase the likelihood that these individuals would support policies that would remedy racial injustice in policing.”

“The people in this study were not explicitly biased against Black individuals,” Kubota added. “The findings would probably be very different when explicitly racist individuals are watching these videos. They may, in fact, positively evaluate the interaction. So this is an important future direction.”

The study, “Perceiving social injustice during arrests of Black and White civilians by White police officers“, was authored by Tzipporah P. Dang, Bradley D. Mattan, Denise M. Barth, Grace Handley, Jasmin Cloutier, and Jennifer T.Kubota.

Written by Patricia Y. Sanchez.

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