Sunday, November 21, 2004

Racism Studies Find Rational Part of Brain Can Override Prejudice

From the Wall Street Journal (11-19-04)


When scientists theorize about why racism is pervasive -- so much so that some have suggested it is hard-wired into us -- they come up with something like this: Back when humans were venturing out of the species' birthplace in east Africa, each little band mostly kept to itself.

But occasionally someone, searching for food or territory or maybe adventure, came upon someone unfamiliar, from a different band.

He could wait for the thoughtful, cognitive part of his brain to assess the stranger. Or he could follow the instincts of the primitive, vigilance and wariness-inducing part of his brain, instantly identifying the guy as an outsider and then either running like heck or assaulting him. With this reaction, he was more likely to live and reproduce. We, the descendants of such people, inherited their genetically based brain modules, which reflexively classify people as "like me" or "unlike me." And thus was racism wired into humankind.

Leave aside that this fable is impossible to test and rests on a questionable assumption (at the dawn of human history, people looked pretty much alike even if they belonged to different bands). It has nevertheless exerted a powerful hold on the imaginations of those who regard racism as a fundamental and therefore inevitable human attribute. More evidence: Although many white Americans consider themselves unbiased, when unconscious stereotypes are measured, some 90% implicitly link blacks with negative traits (evil, failure).

But recent studies challenge the conclusion that racism is natural and unavoidable.

Evidence that we are wired for racism comes from studies in which whites were shown pictures of black faces. That typically produced a spike in activity in the part of the brain, called the amygdala, that is the source of wariness and vigilance, responding automatically and emotionally to possible threats. The greater the whites' negative attitude toward blacks, as measured on the unconscious-stereotyping test, the greater the activity in the amygdala when they saw black faces, compared with the activity when they saw white ones. (Data from studies in which blacks saw white faces are less clear-cut.)

But that primitive response is not inevitable. In a new study, researchers found that it indeed occurred when the faces were flashed for 30 milliseconds, so quickly that they could be seen only subconsciously. There was no such difference in amygdala activity, however, when the white volunteers saw faces for 525 milliseconds, scientists led by William Cunningham of the University of Toronto will report next month in the journal Psychological Science.

Instead, there was greater activity in the prefrontal cortex and the anterior cingulate. Both regions are associated with higher thought and with inhibition and control of reflexive responses. This suggests that the thoughtful, rational part of the brain snuffed out the prejudicial response that would have otherwise popped up from the amygdala. In fact, people who showed the most unconscious bias on the test of unconscious stereotyping, and thus had the most to control, also showed the greatest activation of higher brain functions when they saw black faces.

"If people have a chance, they can modify or override the emotional response with the cognitive regions of their brain," says Prof. Cunningham.

Although you might think that racism is fundamental and inevitable because it emanates from a primitive part of the brain, even if we can override it with a higher region, Prof. Cunningham demurs: "It's silly to say that these automatic reactions are the true you," or that they are any more "you" than thoughtful reactions that reflect consciousness and beliefs.

Consider what happened when white volunteers looked at yearbook photos of black or white faces for two seconds to determine any of three things: if they were over 21, if there was a dot on the face, or if the person depicted looked as if he or she liked a particular vegetable.

There was no extra activity in the amygdala when the whites looked for a dot on a black face, found psychologist Susan Fiske of Princeton University. They were probably seeing the faces not as faces but as mere background for a dot, so no racist feelings surfaced. But there was a spike in amygdala activity when the whites scrutinized the black faces to assess age. Categorizing someone for one purpose (age) seemed to activate stereotypes of another category (race).

But then the volunteers looked at black faces to assess their affinity for asparagus (or celery, or carrots). There was no amygdala spike. Why? This task forced the volunteers to see black faces as those of unique individuals. That inhibited what Prof. Fiske calls "category-based emotional responses" generated by the amygdala.

"Prejudice is not inevitable," she concludes in a paper to be published in January. To the contrary. With a conscious goal to see someone as unique, the default response -- race-based and stereotyped -- "can evaporate. We have some control over how we look at people. You're not responsible for what goes into your head -- and people are fooling themselves if they think they can be colorblind -- but we are responsible for what we do with that information."

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