Racial bias in judgments of physical size and formidability: From size to threat

John Paul Wilson, Kurt Hugenberg, Nicholas O. Rule

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

157 Scopus citations


Black men tend to be stereotyped as threatening and, as a result, may be disproportionately targeted by police even when unarmed. Here, we found evidence that biased perceptions of young Black men's physical size may play a role in this process. The results of 7 studies showed that people have a bias to perceive young Black men as bigger (taller, heavier, more muscular) and more physically threatening (stronger, more capable of harm) than young White men. Both bottom-up cues of racial prototypicality and top-down information about race supported these misperceptions. Furthermore, this racial bias persisted even among a target sample from whom upper-body strength was controlled (suggesting that racial differences in formidability judgments are a product of bias rather than accuracy). Biased formidability judgments in turn promoted participants' justifications of hypothetical use of force against Black suspects of crime. Thus, perceivers appear to integrate multiple pieces of information to ultimately conclude that young Black men are more physically threatening than young White men, believing that they must therefore be controlled using more aggressive measures.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)59-80
Number of pages22
JournalJournal of Personality and Social Psychology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jul 2017


  • Intergroup relations
  • Motivated perception
  • Person perception
  • Race bias


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