Using Brain Imaging to Analyze Police Responses to Young Black Males

Awarded Scholars:
Lasana Harris, Leiden University
Project Date:
Mar 2015
Award Amount:
Project Programs:
Cultural Contact

Racial discrimination continues to plague society. Recent incidents demonstrate that those entrusted to serve and protect—police officers—often perpetuate discriminatory behavior. Self-relevant processes like stereotype threat and cognitive depletion are possible mechanisms that affect split-second racial aggression. For example, police officers may be more likely to shoot uncooperative residents of African descent because of a situational threat: they perceive the resident to threaten their authority or safety.

How a situational threat affects behavior remains unclear. Does the threat overload the officer emotionally, causing him to make irrational or heuristic-based decisions? Does it add cognitive load, preventing the officer from reasoning about the situation, leading again to heuristic-based decisions? Does the threat cause the officer to misdiagnose the situation, thinking that lethal force is necessary, in the absence of any emotional or cognitive load? Advances in cognitive neuroscience such as brain imaging, paired with advances in social science and police partnerships, may help us answer fundamental questions about the psychological mechanisms responsible for racially disparate shootings that have not previously been studied.

Psychologist and neuroscientist Lasana Harris will test the feasibility of using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to gain insight into police shootings of young black males. He will collect data from 120 police officers from the Los Angeles Police Department. Specifically, police officers will watch 160 25-second videos of simulated resident “potential force” scenarios: 30 with simulated residents of African-American decent, 30 with Caucasian residents, 30 with Asian residents, 30 with residents of Latino descent, and 40 control scenarios (10 per ethnic group) where the escalation of aggression by the resident increases then decreases. These latter videos will be interspersed with escalating aggression videos, ensuring that officers cannot predict whether the scenarios will escalate on every trial. During the scenario, officers have the option to discharge their firearm at any point. Participants must decide upon the appropriate behaviors to diffuse the increasingly hostile situation, from conversation escalating through a variety of weapons culminating in a side-arm pistol.

Before the simulated resident encounters, participants will complete a measure of self-presentational concern. After the simulation, participants will complete a race-based implicit association test (IAT). Harris will then combine officers’ responses to the simulated resident encounters with their actual use of force records and performance history to compute a “bias index,” controlling for the rate of force (and relative rate by target demographics) in each district and for each officer within a given district.


RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences is a peer-reviewed, open-access journal of original empirical research articles by both established and emerging scholars.


The Russell Sage Foundation offers grants and positions in our Visiting Scholars program for research.


Join our mailing list for email updates.