The research, published in Nature Communications, showed participants in a study were likely to misperceive a situation involving a black person as life-threatening, when experienced during a heartbeat rather than between heartbeats.
The findings, researchers say, could have important implications in tackling the high number of shootings of unarmed black people.
Scientists at Royal Holloway, University of London, working with BSMS, run jointly by Brighton and Sussex universities, said the research could lead to the development of new approaches to responding to threatening situations.
Gun or phone? A potentially fatal mistake
Participants of the experiment saw pictures that depicted black or white individuals holding either a gun or mobile phone. It was found that when the image was flashed at them during the heartbeat, as opposed to between heartbeats, they were approximately 10 per cent more likely to perceive the object as a gun when it was held by a black person.
Professor Manos Tsakiris, from the Department of Psychology at Royal Holloway, said: “There is much existing evidence to show that people are more likely to misidentify harmless objects as weapons when held by black people. Recent events have brought this bias to the fore, where black Americans are more than twice as likely as white Americans to be killed during encounters with the police.