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Racial bias in the Brain

Updated: Jul 18, 2020

Decades of studies have shown that most humans display a bias for their in-group - a social group they identify as being a member of vs. the “out-group”- people who are different from them. Although this can be based on many traits, race is a significant factor in defining in-group. Discussion of bias related to race - particularly white or black - is important in the current moment.

Children and Racial Bias

Newborns show no preference for faces from their own race as compared to others, but babies develop a bias towards people like themselves over the first year of life. Most babies grow up with parents that are the same race, and encounter faces from their own race significantly more than those from other races. Bias may arise from familiarity and simply being surrounded by in-group members, or as babies come to associate their own race with happy and nurturing experiences. This bias differs from racism which is “prejudice, discrimination or antagonism directed at someone of a different race”. Babies don’t have negative thoughts about other groups – they don’t think much about them at all.

However, take in-group preference and mix it with cultural attention to racial differences, and children are primed to develop racial attitudes. If they don’t have the opportunity to interact with people of different races, their information about these groups has to come from parents, societal stereotypes or the media, and they will learn any biases therein. However, children who interact regularly with people from other races in a positive way show weaker race bias in infancy and more positive racial attitudes in later childhood.

Implicit Racial Bias

Aside from rare instances of brazen and explicit racism, which we would all recognize and hopefully condemn, how do we know that racial bias even exists? Almost everyone you ask will deny having racial biases, and in the vast majority of cases they most likely sincerely believe that to be the case. However, psychological experiments provide objective evidence that over 75% of those studied have implicit, subconscious racial bias that affects how they process information and perceive the social world.

In an MRI scanner, people who display more implicit racial bias have a stronger activation to other-race stimuli, such as faces, in an area of the brain called the amygdala, which processes emotional stimuli and can rapidly elicit a fearful or anxious mental state. Such mental states can lead us to react automatically and without conscious awareness in ways meant to ensure our safety such as with stronger in-group preference. Most of the time, another part of the brain - the prefrontal cortex - tempers these reactions with slower, thoughtful cognitive assessment of the situation.

How much implicit bias actually affects behavior is debated, but studies suggest it can impact decision-making. In one study, a comparable résumé with a ‘black-sounding’ name was half as likely to be chosen for interview than one with a white name. Even if there was no explicit bias, it is possible the employers subconsciously devalued the black sounding name resumes despite the applicant’s qualifications. Another study found that an iPod being sold online got 17 percent fewer offers if it was shown held by a black hand than by a white hand, suggesting that race makes a difference perhaps in assessing trust worthiness or desirability. An interesting finding is that similar patterns of response were present whether the study subject was black or white. Expanding the subject population to compare responses between other racial groups revealed other bias patterns, but no group had no biases.

If you want to learn more about implicit bias or test yourself for hidden bias, try here:

If these biases are so prevalent and subconscious, how are we to change them? First, we must acknowledge that unconscious racial bias exists, and can lead us to make assumptions and stereotype others based on it. As Nigerian author Ngozi Adichi said, The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.” Making an effort to understand people as complex, individual humans rather than members of a group or race, and having dialogue and experience with individuals of other races is the best way to alter implicit racial bias and hopefully change behavior. Education about bias and diversity can help but studies show its effects are more on explicit biases and often short lived.

Post by: Nadia Fike, MD/PhD


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