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Americans See Black Men as Larger Than They Really Are, Study Finds

The survey also found that nonblack respondents thought black men were more capable of violence than whites—and that cops would be more justified using force in altercations with them.
Drew Schwartz
Brooklyn, US
Photo via Flickr user Michael Fleshman

When looking at white and black men with nearly identical physiques—same height, same weight—people tend to think black men are taller, heavier, and more muscular than their white counterparts, according to a survey published Monday in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,the Washington Post reports.

To conduct seven different studies, researchers from Miami University of Ohio and the University of Toronto rounded up 950 online participants, both black and nonblack Americans, and asked them to estimate the physical characteristics of different men based on images of their faces. The psychologists used 45 images of black college football recruits, and 45 images of white recruits, with their exact measurements on file.


In one experiment, participants were asked to guess the men's height and weight solely based on their photos. On the whole, all participants consistently overestimated the black men's measurements compared to the white men photographed. Another survey asked participants to pair photographs of faces with illustrated bodies, ranging from slender to Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson ripped. Again, participants assumed black men were larger than whites, when in reality black and white men in the US are about the same height and weight on average.

"We found that these estimates were consistently biased," John Paul Wilson, one of the study's authors, said in a statement. "Participants judged the black men to be larger, stronger, and more muscular than the white men, even though they were actually the same size."

While all participants overestimated the size of the black men in the photographs, nonblack participants thought black men were much more capable of causing physical harm. Researchers asked the participants whether or not they thought police should use force against the person in the photo, should they be acting aggressively. Nonblack respondents said that cops had more grounds for force on the black men than the whites photographed.

"Unarmed black men are disproportionately more likely to be shot and killed by police, and often these killings are accompanied by explanations that cite the physical size of the person shot," Wilson said.

Wilson said that the findings reflect stereotypes of black men that "do not seem to comport with reality." He and his fellow psychologists pointed to several recent police shootings of black men, drawing a potential connection between the shootings of Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Michael Brown in Ferguson, and Trayvon Marin in Florida.

"It would be valuable for future research to investigate whether the biases that we have observed here manifest in face-to-face interactions outside of the laboratory," the researchers wrote in the study. "Despite this limitation, we believe that the consistency of the effects that we have observed from multiple sets of face and body photographs is quite striking on its own."