What Psychology Can Tell Us about Trayvon Martin’s Tragic Shooting

I want to share with you some of my thoughts regarding Trayvon Martin from my perspective as a psychologist. Here is a brief summary of three important psychological variables that are inextricably linked with the issue of race and racism. They are relevant to how and why something like this could have happened, has happened before, and sadly, is likely to happen again.

Many of us make what are called Implicit Associations with regard to race that are caused by unconscious, automatic conditioning based on our history of racial discrimination in the US, as well frequent media exposure to negative images of Black people and positive images of white people . (To test your implicit associations regarding race and skin tone, take Harvard University’s Implicit Association Test).

We also have mental filters through which we interpret the world, called schemas. Whenever we encounter new situations and new people, we attempt to fit these new experiences into our existing schemas. If George Zimmerman’s schemas have been shaped by his role as a neighborhood watchman or lone ranger of justice, he will have a tendency to interpret any behavior as suspicious or criminal even when it is not.

To put this into context, a lot of attention has been focused on a recent study about what has been called shooter bias – if you are holding a gun, you are more likely to perceive someone else as holding a gun even when they’re not. Another older study also found that participants were consistently more likely to accidentally shoot unarmed people when those unarmed people were Black. These two research phenomena were seen in a real life tragedy during the 1999 police shooting of African-born Amadou Diallo, who was shot by 4 NYC police officers when he pulled out his wallet, which they mistook for a gun. And now in 2012, we again see the tragic intersection of race, shooter bias, schemas, and implicit associations resulting in the death of young Trayvon Martin.

Undeniably, race is a factor in the shooting of Trayvon Martin. Whether it was overt racism or not is up to you to decide. But be aware that the public’s perceptions of these events are also based on our own past experiences with race, our schemas, and our implicit associations.  I am in no way condoning what George Zimmerman did; I am simply offering a psychological perspective that elucidates the cognitive biases that make this tragic event a recurring possibility in the future.

As a mother, my heart breaks for the family of Trayvon Martin. As a fellow human being, my heart breaks for our country.

Watch the segment from 9News with Dr. Peg on the panel (3/29/12)