Earlier this month, Beacon Press published the latest Greater Good anthology, Are We Born Racist? New Insights from Neuroscience and Positive Psychology. To coincide with its release, we’re featuring a sneak peak at some of the contributions to the book, including this illuminating essay by NYU psychologist David Amodio, which was recently featured in the Washington Post to help explain the controversy over Dr. Laura Schlessinger’s use of the n-word.

Recent research in social neuroscience has revealed that prejudiced reactions are linked to rapidly activated structures in the brain—parts of the brain associated with fear and disgust, likely developed long ago in our evolutionary history. Does this mean that racism is hardwired into our neural circuitry?

Hands gathering in the air in basketball court © Sean Warren

Far from it. One of the things we also know from neuroscience is that the human brain is built for flexibility in how we respond to our social environment. While normal responses that promote our safety and survival can lead to inadvertent prejudices, causing automatic reactions of alarm and distrust when we perceive someone from another racial group, there’s more to the human brain than fear. We are also wired for cooperation and fairness. Research on the neuroscience of prejudice is simultaneously discovering the roots of egalitarianism—and revealing new ways in which the brain can overcome our initial fears and biases. 

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Blink of the eye
To understand prejudice and the brain, one must take the brain (and the mind) for what it really is: a survival machine. This may not be the most romantic way to describe the organ that poets like Emily Dickinson have exulted as “wider than the sky” and “deeper than the sea.” But while our consciousness may be occupied with lofty thoughts, the brain is constantly working in the background like a personal assistant to take care of the details so we don’t have to think about them consciously.

This of course includes the mundane, like breathing, regulating our heart rate, or automatically shifting our gaze toward threatening objects. It also includes our reflexive responses to a threat, when heart rate and respiration increase and blood is diverted to our larger muscles in preparation for fight or flight. These are normal responses that promote our safety and survival—and unfortunately, responses that can sometimes lead us to prejudice and discriminatory behavior.

However, the story doesn’t end there. To understand how the brain overcomes initial responses to race, consider its evolutionary history. The basic machinery for gut reactions and snap judgments was present in the brains of our distant ancestors, and the same structures are still found in our brains today, primarily in the human subcortex. These relatively simple mechanisms for detecting us vs. them—and for automatically treating “them” as a threat—are quite helpful for species living in basic societies that do not require cooperation with outside groups.

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But with each step of our evolution, primate social networks grew in complexity, and the subtle demands of social interaction grew enormously. Alongside these changes came major increases in brain size. Humans now live in a multicultural society linked by neighborhoods, workplace and political hierarchies, states, nations, and global regions—and peaceful interdependence is now key to our survival. With these new societal complexities, the basic machinery of the mind that promoted the survival of our evolutionary ancestors becomes not-so-adaptive for social life in the 21st century.

During the process of evolution, the brain didn’t simply get larger. It also developed completely new structures. In particular, the mammalian brain developed a neocortex—the outer “grey matter” layer of the brain—which grew atop the older subcortex (sometimes referred to as the “reptilian” brain). The neocortex provides a mechanism for fine-tuning and augmenting the functions of subcortical structures, like adding power steering and fuel-injection to a car to enhance its performance.

To use another automobile analogy, imagine that the brain drives behavior like a person drives a car. More specifically, imagine that a teenager in a driver’s education class is like the subcortex, and his expert instructor, sitting next to him with her own steering wheel and brake, is the neocortex. The student does well in most situations, but when it comes time to parallel park—an advanced maneuver—the instructor may have to take control of the wheel. The two drivers aren’t in conflict—that is, they both have the goal of parking the car. But to perform this complex task effectively, the student needs the help of the instructor. In this way, the neocortex functions to take control of one’s behaviors to override our immediate, but sometimes inappropriate, reactions to people from other groups.

The neuroscience of egalitarianism
How exactly does the neocortex keep our prejudices at bay? Most people would agree that non-prejudiced behavior involves treating people equally, regardless of their group membership. Indeed, what we really mean by “controlling prejudice” is sticking to one’s goal in an interaction—whether it’s asking for directions or evaluating a job candidate—without being influenced by race (or gender, or sexual orientation, etc.).

While studies have shown that people are generally unable to deliberately turn down the intensity of a feeling or a stereotypic thought, people are quite effective at responding to those thoughts or feelings in a way that blocks the actual expression of bias. In other words, people can overcome racism by keeping their eyes on the prize. The brain cannot be anti-racist, per se, because it never stops spotting differences and sorting people into categories. But it is pro-goal—and if the goal is to make judgments without regard to race, the brain can do that, though it may take a bit of effort and practice.

In a series of experiments, my colleagues and I studied the neural mechanisms that enable us to control behavior in the face of automatic prejudiced tendencies. In one study, we measured participants’ brain activity while they completed a computer task that required them to override stereotyped tendencies. In the task, white participants were shown pictures of various handguns and handtools. Their goal was to classify these objects as guns or tools by pressing buttons on the computer keyboard.

But just before each gun or tool picture appeared, a face of either a white or black person flashed briefly on the screen. Given the stereotype that African Americans are dangerous, the momentary flash of a black face predisposes participants to expect to see a gun, rather than a tool. This speeds up their response to guns and leads to more mistakes when a tool actually appears. In order to respond accurately on the task, participants need to override the influence of racial stereotypes. By measuring electrical changes in the brain as they completed this task, using electroencephalography (EEG), we hoped to shed light on the psychological processes involved in the control of prejudice.

We found that participants with positive attitudes toward black people showed greater activity in the left prefrontal cortex—a region associated with greater self-control—throughout the task. More interestingly, this increase in frontal cortical activity appeared to tune other regions of the brain to perceive the black and white faces differently. Finally, this tuning of perception helped participants to respond more carefully and accurately when categorizing the target pictures (guns and tools), and as a result, their responses were less influenced by racial stereotypes triggered by the faces.

In other words, low-prejudice people are more attentive to racial cues—and this helps them adjust their behaviors to respond without prejudice.

These results are similar to those of a study by Princeton psychologist Susan Fiske, who used fMRI to measure activity of white participants’ amygdalas in response to black vs. white faces while those white participants completed different types of tasks. When the task was to categorize faces according to their race, the researchers observed greater amygdala activity to black faces, suggesting a stronger emotional reaction toward blacks. However, when participants had a specific goal for which race was not relevant—for example, to search for a gray dot on the picture or to try to guess what type of vegetable the person in the picture preferred—the differential amygdala response to black vs. white faces disappeared. These results provide even more support for the idea that people can override the effects of implicit racial bias by focusing their attention on their main, race-irrelevant task.

How does this play out in real life? Let’s say that a white student approaches her black professor to ask about an assignment. If she remains focused on her questions—the point of the interaction—stereotypes related to the professor’s race will be less likely to affect their interaction. Or imagine a person who just ran a marathon and is parched. When he walks up to the beverage stand for a bottle of water, his goal to find a drink may be so strong and focused that he doesn’t even notice that the cashier is Arab, a racial group associated with terrorism in America. These goals are race-irrelevant, and so a strong focus on the goal prevents any stereotypes or prejudices from coming into play.

Course correction
But what happens if the marathon runner suddenly notices the Arab cashier’s race as he begins to hand over his money? After years of exposure to the Arab-as-terrorist stereotype, he could easily feel a gut-level sense of fear and momentarily freeze in place. His brain would then need to detect that this automatic response is inconsistent with the main goal (to buy a bottle of water), and would need to work extra hard to get the goal-driven behavior back on track.

A region of the frontal cortex called the anterior cingulate helps monitor the match between ongoing motor responses and one’s behavioral intentions. If you were playing basketball and charging up to the basket, the anterior cingulate would be working hard to make sure your attention and movements were focused on taking the shot, undeterred by distractions. As the degree of mismatch between the intention and the response is detected—if, say, your arms aren’t raising the basketball high enough—activity in the anterior cingulate rises, signaling to the prefrontal cortex (among other regions) that greater top-down control is needed to adjust your arms and make the shot.

Evidence for this process with regard to race has been shown in a series of studies. For example, on the gun/tool task described above, participants need to override the influence of African-American stereotypes on some trials but not on others. Specifically, when a black face appears before a picture of a tool, the stereotyped tendency is to classify it as a gun, even though the goal is to classify it correctly as a tool. In a series of studies using EEG, we found that activity in the anterior cingulate increased when prejudice loomed and control was needed.

Moreover, subjects who had stronger anterior cingulate activity in response to race-biased conflict showed more accuracy in their behavior. That is, they were more effective in blocking the influence of the stereotype and focusing on the task at hand. In general, people who were more strongly motivated to respond without prejudice showed a greater neural sensitivity to the activation of racial stereotypes, and this is what helped them override stereotypes in their behavior.

Although the brain is often able to correct our responses before we make a mistake, there are certainly times when it fails. University of Wisconsin psychologist Patricia Devine describes many self-avowed egalitarians as being in the process of “breaking the prejudiced habit.” Despite their beliefs and their best efforts, they occasionally slip up.

However, other research shows that such slip-ups lead to renewed efforts to respond without prejudice, and with greater vigilance in situations where bias may occur. In particular, Purdue University psychologist Margo Monteith has shown that when a low-prejudice participant responds unintentionally with bias, she will be more attentive to racial cues and react more carefully in future situations. In other words, egalitarianism is a skill, and people can learn from their experiences to respond without prejudice.

My own research has shown that after such slip-ups, low-prejudice people experience heightened activity in the left frontal cortex—a region associated with greater controlled processing—and that this change in brain activity predicts their efforts to be less prejudiced in their future behaviors. In a sense, this work shows that a failure to act without prejudice can trigger stronger efforts to regulate one’s behavior in future intergroup situations.

For example, let’s say you make a quip to a colleague that comes off as unintentionally racist: “Hey, I’d always rather have a black guy on my basketball team!” Afterward, you feel guilty—and that’s linked to neural processes that help you think twice before you speak in the future. For people concerned about nonconscious racist tendencies, this ability to learn from our mistakes gives us grounds for optimism.

Regulating prejudice
Is there any way to reduce that initial, automatic response to racial difference, the one that sends our primitive amygdala into high alert? Research on classical conditioning in rats suggests that once an emotional association is formed in subcortical circuitry, it is difficult, if not impossible, to unlearn.

However, acquiring new information may lessen the initial emotional response. Past research by myself and others has shown the amygdala is more strongly activated when people look at faces of other racial groups. But more recent work suggests that new information about group memberships can change this pattern. For example, a study by Jay van Bavel of New York University showed pictures of black and white people to white participants. Participants were told they would be playing a game, and that some of the people in the photos would be on their team and others would be on an opposing team. When van Bavel scanned participants’ brains while they looked at the faces, their amygdalas were more active while they viewed faces of the opposing team, regardless of race. That is, older negative associations with blacks seemed to be overwritten once participants learned that some blacks were on their own team, and thus were presumably friendly.

The implications of this study (and others like it) are powerful: We might be able to reduce automatic racism just by convincing people that they are all on the same team, be it a sports team, a company, a nation, or a planet. This idea, championed by psychologists Samuel Gaertner and John Dovidio, is called the “Ingroup Identity Model.” Kurt Vonnegut had a similar idea in his 1959 book, The Sirens of Titan, in which an eccentric billionaire organizes an attack from Mars in order to unite the nations of Earth against a common enemy and, in doing so, foster world peace.

Although it may be very difficult to eradicate prejudices, we can design institutions and interventions to change how we perceive people from other racial groups. The new psychology of racism suggests that simply suppressing prejudice—or trying to directly eradicate bias as it’s activated in the brain—will not ultimately work. Instead, we have to let the amygdala do its job, and train ourselves to help the neocortex to do its job. We really don’t have a choice—so many other aspects of life depend on our quick reactions and snap judgments, and it is a system that is designed to be relatively tamper-proof.

Reports of our “racist brains” have stolen headlines, depicting humans as victims to the unconscious prejudices lurking in the dark corners of our minds. But the fuller story portrays the human brain as being expertly equipped to overcome automatic prejudices and build positive social relationships. Through research on the neuroscience of prejudice, we have gained a better sense of how egalitarian intentions can succeed, as well as how they may fail. By knowing that biases work quickly to influence snap decisions, people can identify situations where prejudices may spring up, and then exert greater care in their actions. In this way, perhaps the egalitarian brain can help us build a more egalitarian society.

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