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Wearing a police uniform alters human perception

"Given that attention shapes how we experience the world, attentional biases toward certain groups of people can be problematic," said neuroscientist Sukhvinder Obhi.

By Brooks Hays
Wearing a police uniform alters human perception
New research suggests the simple act of putting on a police uniform can change the way humans perceive other people. Photo by Kevin Dietsch/UPI | License Photo

Feb. 10 (UPI) -- Simply donning a police uniform affects human perception, new research shows.

Cognitive neuroscientists at McMaster University, in Canada, had study participants wear a police uniform and try to identify shapes. Pictures of men in suits and hoodies appeared alongside the targets.

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Participants were slower to recognize shapes when pictures of men wearing hoodies were present. In other words, people were more easily distracted by men wearing hoodies.

"We know that clothing conveys meaning and that the hoodie has to some extent become a symbol of lower social standing and inner-city youth," Sukhvinder Obhi, an associate professor of neuroscience and psychology, said in a news release. "There is a stereotype out there that links hoodies with crime and violence, and this stereotype might be activated to a greater degree when donning the police style uniform."

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The presence of men in hoodies did not affect the reaction times of participants wearing their regular clothes.

"[The police uniform] may have contributed to the changes in attention that we observed," Obhi explained. "Given that attention shapes how we experience the world, attentional biases toward certain groups of people can be problematic."

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When looking for suspect or evidence of wrongdoing, a police officer may unconsciously perceive a person as threatening based on their appearance -- or focus his or her attention on a person dressed a certain way.

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The new findings -- detailed in the journal Frontiers in Psychology -- suggest the symbolic power and authority provided by a police uniform is enough to encourage bias.

Surprisingly, participants showed no biases related to the color of a person's skin. Several studies in the United States have shown people are more likely to perceive African Americans as threatening and more likely to pin darker faces as participants in a crime.

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