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Police / Civilian Interaction

Threat Evaluations & Defensive Responses of Police

The consequences of threat and defensive behaviors during police-civilian encounters are well studied from the police perspective. Decades of research on the “shooter bias” reveals a propensity for police to more frequently shoot unarmed Black vs. White men on first-person shooter tasks, a pattern ostensibly underpinned by stereotypes linking Black Americans to threat. Despite this, zero work has considered the possibility of physiological threat response and associated behaviors among civilians when they encounter police officers. This line of research addresses this gap by focusing on civilians’ (1) automatic threat evaluations of and (2) defensive responses toward the police. Understanding these physiological and behavioral outcomes as automatic and self-defensive may hold important implications for how we interpret civilian behavior—such as non-compliance—under policing contexts.

Automatic Threat Evaluations of the Police

In an initial set of studies, we examined (1) if civilians implicitly evaluative police officers as dangerous, and (2) if these evaluations have implications for explicit attitudes. Across both studies, participants completed three separate affect misattribution procedures (AMP; an indirect measure of attitudes) that sought to disentangle automatic threat (safe vs. danger) and valence (positive/good vs. negative/bad) evaluations of police vs. non-police. Together, both studies suggest police are evaluated as more dangerous and negative than non-police (shown on the figure below/to the right/wherever you want to put them) and more dangerous relative to negative. Moreover, threat evaluations predicted explicit (self-reported) perceptions of police over and above valence evaluations.


Olivett, V. J. & March, D. S. (2021). White civilians’ implicit danger evaluations of police officers underlies explicit perception of police. Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications, 6(81). PDF Version

Defensive Responses to Police

When humans perceive danger, we respond in ways that optimize chances of survival. These include responses characterized by initial changes in peripheral physiology (e.g., changes in heart rate, sweat release, muscular preparation) as well as downstream defensive physical behaviors. In humans, perceiving a threat promotes canonical responses including active avoidance (i.e., fleeing the danger), defensive aggression (i.e., fighting the danger), and/or defensive immobilization (i.e., freezing to minimize detection and/or prepare for future action). In light of this, we followed-up this above-described work by exploring the consequences of police-threat attitudes for defensive behavior. In three studies each utilizing unique measures of defensive behavioral and physiological responding we find that people more rapidly avoid police than non-police on a joystick approach-avoid task (i.e., defensive flight), exhibit reduced postural sway to police than non-police (i.e., defensive freeze; shown on the figures below/to the right/wherever you want to put them), and evince larger startle eyeblinks towards police than non-police (i.e., defensive physiological preparation).

Olivett, V. J. & March, D. S. (in press). The civilian’s dilemma: Civilians exhibit automatic defensive responses to the police. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

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