Prejudice in the Brain

Neuroscience research can help understand how to control prejudice.

Posted Jun 23, 2020

Prejudice, a dirty word, and faith, a clean one, have something in common: they both begin where reason ends.” —Harper Lee, Go Set a Watchman 

CC0/Pixabay
Source: CC0/Pixabay

Its aftermath can reach the Earth’s farthest corners. Yet prejudice is conceived in the silent confines of the human mind.

Scientists across disciplines have made strides uncovering why and how we form our attitudes towards others. Still, much remains a mystery. 

In his social neuroscience lab at NYU, professor David Amodio investigates the neural mechanisms underlying social biases. He views prejudice as a multilevel phenomenon that involves societies, groups, biological processes, and individual minds. According to Amodio, social neuroscience — the intersection where the social world connects with the biological world — offers a tremendous opportunity in illuminating how prejudice operates in the brain. 

Here are nine questions about prejudice with Dr. Amodio.

Does everyone feel prejudice?

There’s an important distinction between prejudiced beliefs and prejudiced reactions. Many people reject prejudice in terms of their beliefs. But even those people notice groups and may have automatic prejudiced reactions to them. Research on stereotypes shows that simply knowing the stereotypes of a group leads to the automatic activation of that stereotype in your mind — even if you consciously reject that stereotype. So, prejudice has automatic and deliberate aspects, and while some people reject it deliberatively, everyone has some form of prejudice.

Who do people have prejudices against?

People are prejudiced against various groups for multiple reasons. Simply belonging to different groups, based on arbitrary distinctions, is sufficient to elicit prejudice. However, competition between groups, power hierarchies, and political conflicts can exacerbate prejudice and turn mere dislike into hatred and harm. 

What is at the core of prejudice?

Differences, of any kind. But from there you can layer on social dynamics like competition, threat, and fear, and these lead prejudices to become more intense, entrenched, and oppressive. 

What role do emotions play in prejudice?

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Source: CC0/Pixabay

As with most psychological processes, emotions fuel how we respond to other people and how we act towards them. There are many emotions that are associated with prejudice — you might feel hatred toward political outgroups, pity toward poor people, threat or dominance toward racial outgroups.

I think emotions play a supporting role in prejudice. They help motivate a certain response, focus attention and cognition, and drive our actions. 

What does prejudice look like in the brain?

People initially became interested in neuroscience to understand the automatic aspects of prejudice, which have been difficult to study using traditional behavioral methods. Although early work looked for a single neural substrate for implicit prejudice, we quickly saw that many different neural processes contribute to a prejudiced response: how we perceive people and categorize them into groups, how we store stereotypes about groups in our memory, how different regions of the brain get activated when we have emotional reactions to groups.

We also see how the brain pulls all this information together in order to make judgments and, in some cases, control our responses. One reason it’s been interesting to map out these different aspects of prejudice in the brain is that each suggests a potential intervention point. By identifying these processes in the brain, we can learn more about the individual building blocks that make up prejudice and discover new candidates for interventions to reduce bias. 

What insights can we gain from social neuroscience about prejudice?

An overarching insight is that prejudice is a truly multi-process phenomenon. 

For example, one interesting insight comes from cognitive categorization — one of the main building blocks of prejudice. Our minds categorize objects in our world in order to respond to them. The same processes apply when we look at other humans. That’s why we categorize people into groups so easily, and so quickly. Social neuroscience has identified a sequence of processes involved in social categorization that begins just 100 milliseconds after viewing a face. 

Another insight is that prejudice can bias our visual perception of faces. Usually, seeing is believing, and so if a person sees an outgroup member in a biased way — for example, more threatening than they really look — it’s very hard for the perceiver to detect and control the bias. Social neuroscience has even shown that prejudice affects our ability to perceive an outgroup person’s face as a human face. Configural face encoding is the extent to which your brain — when you are looking at a face — recognizes that the eyes, nose, and mouth in front of you come together to make a human face (as opposed to an animal face or an object). Research shows that this process is impaired toward outgroup members when we are prejudiced toward them or motivated to disregard them. We find that the way we see outgroup members depends on our goals, and this, in turn, has downstream implications for discriminatory behavior. 

Can prejudice be controlled?

Yes. Social neuroscience has shown that prejudice control can be engaged quickly and effectively, especially when people know what actions to take in order to respond without bias. 

What is an antidote for feeling prejudice?

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Source: CC0/Pixabay

I wish I could say that it’s something as simple as “love” or “compassion,” but research shows that prejudice goes far beyond an individual’s mind and feelings. If there’s an antidote, it has more to do with the structure of our society and institutions. For example, we know from classic social psychology that categorizing ingroup and outgroup members together under a broader category (e.g., considering our common humanity) can reduce prejudice.

However, while structural change is the goal, social neuroscience has expanded our understanding of how an individual can control their prejudice, by separating control into different component processes and showing the conditions under which we regulate effectively. While it’s difficult to remove prejudice from the mind, self-control can stop it from being expressed in behavior. That in itself is a worthy goal.

Why is it crucial to continue working on reducing prejudice on individual and societal levels?

Our complex, multi-group societies can’t survive without fairness and social justice. Social justice is the basis for democracy and effective governance, and so in this sense, prejudice undermines democracy. People might think that although they have bias in their minds, they are able to act fairly and not express their prejudices. But what we find time and again — in lab experiments and in real life — is that people simply cannot control all the ways that their prejudices influence their judgments and behaviors. For this reason, one of the most important lessons I’ve learned from my research, perhaps ironically, is that the key to reducing prejudice is not in the individual’s mind, but in the design and implementation of policies, procedures, organizations, and structures to ensure fairness. 

Many thanks to David Amodio for his time and insights. Dr. Amodio is Professor of Psychology and Neural Science at NYU and Director of the Social Neuroscience Laboratory. He is also Professor of Social Psychology at the University of Amsterdam.