Putting on a Police Uniform Makes People Feel More Powerful, Biased: Researchers

Putting on a Police Uniform Makes People Feel More Powerful, Biased: Researchers

Researchers suggest poorly trained officers could have a “false sense of superiority” based on their uniform.
February 14, 2017, 4:54pm

Last week, the issue of having Toronto Police officers in the Toronto Pride parade culminated with the police force pulling itself out of the march. This, of course, after pressure from Black Lives Matter Toronto (BLMTO) and Pride activists raised questions about whether an organization that historically lashed out at the queer community should be welcome to march alongside it in 2017.

Critics of the police argue that officers can show up and march, just not in uniform. Others argue that the uniform doesn't have a negative connotation, and that the move to ban organized police from marching is insulting to queer officers. Despite this, a new research paper published in the science journal Frontiers In last week says people—not even necessarily trained police—who wear police uniforms are more likely to be biased toward certain individuals more than others.

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"Why might putting on a police-style uniform bias attention toward specific social targets? One potential explanation is that the police uniform symbolizes social identity," read the study, authored by McMaster University researches Ciro Civile and Sukhvinder Obhi.

"[T]he identity of being a police officer—and the subculture of that group may be of critical importance when considering how uniforms might affect thought and behavior."

Obhi, in an interview with VICE, noted that while the study did not find racial bias to be a factor in the research they conducted, he also believes it to be an indication of the strong difference between policing and racism in Canada versus the US.

"We predicted early on that would be the case. When people put on a police uniform, they feel powerful, which makes them far more likely to generalize and stereotype more. The difference here is that, in Canada, we have a much more diverse population, and the [participants] were from [urban areas], so they likely had a much better understanding of racial complexity," Obhi said.

"We would need to look somewhere that was more secluded, or didn't have as much ethnic diversity, to get a better picture of how those racial flags might affect the data….It seems the US has a much harder time with this than Canada does."

The study, which drew from a pool of dozens of students, was made up primarily of females, but was also divided ethnically to represent what Obhi describes a "Toronto-like model" (mostly Caucasian, partially South and East Asian, partly African-Canadian). Going forward, Obhi says that the next piece of research would likely be focused on looking at rural populations, or drawing from groups that are far less exposed to racial and cultural diversity.

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According to Obhi, data was gathered a few ways, with the only constant being that each participant was either assigned a mechanic or police uniform to wear, and were put through a series of tests within those uniforms. The purpose of this was to determine if there a difference in the level of bias when wearing one uniform over the other.

Throughout the research, participants were challenged via an attention test, with photos of white and black faces popping up randomly during the tests as a "distraction." All of the photos presented had a neutral expression on their face and were disarming. The only differentiating factor between the photos was that some of the pictured individuals were shown wearing hoodies instead of suits, and were classified as having either a low or high socioeconomic status (SES).

Researchers found that those wearing the police uniform were more likely to be distracted from their task by images of individuals wearing a hoodie (considered low SES), rather high SES individuals in suits. Alternately, participants in the mechanic outfit seemed unphased by the distractions, regardless of SES, and were able to complete their test normally.

One of the biggest findings was during the third and final test, in which participants weren't allowed to wear the police uniform, but were allowed to have it in their line of sight. In this case, participants didn't demonstrate any sort of bias during their tests, which Obhi says indicated that the power complex only existed inside of the outfit, not detached from it.

This point is also why Obhi says it was important to use young students (rather than weathered police officers) for the test—arguing the goal was to identify how police uniforms operate as an ego boost, and said they didn't want to "muddy the data" by bringing in officers who had years of experience to get past the initial sensation of power.

"You can actually look at the [participants] more like someone who would be police academy," Obhi told VICE. "We wanted to see if there was a sense of inherent authority and power entrenched in the imagery of police, something that could give a new officer or someone who was improperly trained a false sense of superiority."

Follow Jake Kivanc on Twitter.

Lede image by author.