Our Biased Brains

Nicholas Kristof, New York Times, May 6, 2015

To better understand the roots of racial division in America, think about this:

The human brain seems to be wired so that it categorizes people by race in the first one-fifth of a second after seeing a face. Brain scans show that even when people are told to sort people by gender, the brain still groups people by race.

Racial bias also begins astonishingly early: Even infants often show a preference for their own racial group. In one study, 3-month-old white infants were shown photos of faces of white adults and black adults; they preferred the faces of whites. For 3-month-old black infants living in Africa, it was the reverse.

This preference reflected what the child was accustomed to. Black infants living in overwhelmingly white Israel didn’t show a strong preference one way or the other, according to the study, published in Psychological Science.

Where does this ingrained propensity to racial bias come from?

Scholars suggest that in evolutionary times we became hard-wired to make instantaneous judgments about whether someone is in our “in group” or not–because that could be lifesaving. A child who didn’t prefer his or her own group might have been at risk of being clubbed to death.

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Many of these experiments on in-group bias have been conducted around the world, and almost every ethnic group shows a bias favoring its own. One exception: African-Americans.

Researchers find that in contrast to other groups, African-Americans do not have an unconscious bias toward their own. From young children to adults, they are essentially neutral and favor neither whites nor blacks.

Banaji and other scholars suggest that this is because even young African-American children somehow absorb the social construct that white skin is prestigious and that black skin isn’t. In one respect, that is unspeakably sad; in another, it’s a model of unconscious race neutrality. Yet even if we humans have evolved to have a penchant for racial preferences from a very young age, this is not destiny. We can resist the legacy that evolution has bequeathed us.

“We wouldn’t have survived if our ancestors hadn’t developed bodies that store sugar and fat,” Banaji says. “What made them survive is what kills us.” Yet we fight the battle of the bulge and sometimes win–and, likewise, we can resist a predisposition for bias against other groups.

One strategy that works is seeing images of heroic African-Americans; afterward, whites and Asians show less bias, a study found. Likewise, hearing a story in which a black person rescues someone from a white assailant reduces anti-black bias in subsequent testing. It’s not clear how long this effect lasts.

Deep friendships, especially romantic relationships with someone of another race, also seem to mute bias–and that, too, has implications for bringing young people together to forge powerful friendships.

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