Racism Brings Brain Drain

Interracial interactions are mentally taxing, even for those who are not racist.

By Colin Allen, published on November 1, 2003 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Coping with race is mentally draining. A small study of white
participants finds that mental capacity decreases after an interaction
with a black man--even for those who were not greatly prejudiced. The
study, published in the journal
Nature Neuroscience, suggests the participants feel
strained because of trying to remain race-neutral.

Head researcher Jennifer Richeson, a psychologist from the
University of Dartmouth, tested 30 white participants for racial
prejudice. Biased subjects took longer to associate negative concepts
with whites and positive concepts with blacks.

After the test, the participants interacted with either a black or
white male involved with the study. Those who met with the black man
scored worse in a cognitive test taken immediately after the meeting. The
greater the race bias, the worse the score.

Scans of brain activity found that participants' neural activity
increased when looking at photographs of black males. Specifically, it
increased in the right dorsolateral prefontal cortex--a part of the brain
linked to thoughts and behaviors.

Richeson thinks the increase in mental activity resulted from an
attempt to avoid prejudiced behavior. "Individuals perform worse on
certain cognitive tasks because they were attempting to control their
thoughts, behavior and emotions during the interaction," notes
Richeson.