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Wearing police uniform changes the way brain processes information

By simply putting on a uniform, similar to one the police might wear, the way we perceive others is automatically affected and it creates a bias towards those considered to be of a low social status. This is the conclusion of a research made by a team of cognitive neuroscientists at McMaster, recently published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

The can give important clues about stereotypes and profiling, mainly about how the symbolic power and authority associated with police uniforms might affect these tendencies.

“We all know that the police generally do an excellent job, but there has also been a great deal of public discourse about biased policing in North America over recent years. We set out to explore whether the uniform itself might have an impact, independent of all other aspects of the police subculture, training or work experiences”, says Sukhvinder Obhi, an associate professor of Psychology, Neuroscience & Behaviour and senior author of the study, which was conducted with postdoctoral researcher Ciro Civile.


Researches made a series of experiments with university students participants and studied how they shifted attention during specific tasks. Sometimes they wore police-style attire.

One of the tasks implied the identification of a simple shape on a computer screen while participants were distracted by images of white male faces, black male faces, individuals dressed in business suits and others dressed in hoodies. Their reaction times were analyzed in order to compare how long they were distracted by the various images.

The results showed that there was no difference in reaction times and no evidence of racial profiling when the distractors were white or black faces. This was surprising even for the researchers, as previous research, mostly conducted in the United States, has revealed that many people associate African Americans with crime. Furthermore, the apparent lack of racial bias in the current study might highlight a potentially important difference between Canadian and American society.

However, differences were revealed when participants were distracted by photos of individuals wearing hoodies; reaction times slowed, indicating that the images of hoodies were attention-grabbing. This bias towards hoodies only occurred when participants were wearing the police-style garb.

“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. 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. This may have contributed to the changes in attention that we observed. Given that attention shapes how we experience the world, attentional biases toward certain groups of people can be problematic”, Obhi says.

This is especially relevant for police officers, who might unconsciously perceive a threat where one doesn’t exist or vice versa. Further, researchers hope to study the uniform and its effect on police officers. They are also conducting follow-up studies with collaborators in the United States.

Mary Albert