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Race and Ethnicity

Why Is It Impossible to Not Judge People?

The brain involuntarily produces judgments about people's race and sex.

Pixabay are released under Creative Commons CC0
Source: Pixabay are released under Creative Commons CC0

Several factors influence our thoughts and behaviors, and many of them are outside our awareness and control.

You can think of the brain as a dual-processor consisting of a logical conscious system and a non-conscious reflexive one. The logical brain is intentional, voluntary, and within our awareness. It makes us feel in control, but it requires time and effort. On the other hand, the reflexive brain is involuntary, outside our awareness, irrational, and reactionary. It is typically recruited because it is fast and effortless.

To our dismay, the reflexive brain involuntarily spews mental computations such as making judgments about people’s race, sex, and religious affiliation.

Most of us have been taught this principle in social etiquette 101: "Do not judge people." And we all know the cliché, “Don’t judge the book by its cover." Schools, work and many homes have encouraged their members to be cordial to everyone.

But, is it possible to make no judgments? Imagine if I asked you to stare at the sentence below in parentheses without reading it, just stare at it.


It is impossible to look at words and not read them — even if you try really hard.

Similarly, it is impossible to meet someone and make zero internal judgments about them. Judgments are expectations based on pre-programmed mindsets or scripts, and yes, when it comes to race, we call them stereotypes.

Of course, many judgments are benign, but others can be cancerous. Most of us can fill out questionnaires on attitudes toward others, and pass as non-racist or non-sexist with flying colors. But, you know who is filling them out? Your logical brain is!

However, it is your reflexive brain that is frequently in control of your behaviors, especially if you have to make fast decisions or if you don’t want to exert too much cognitive effort.

Not convinced? Then, consider the results of some of the following functional neuroimaging studies (for a review on fMRI studies and race-related prejudice, please click here). Neuroimaging allows the researcher to tap into the reflexive mind that is largely outside our awareness.

Hart et al.’s (2000) neuroimaging study was the first to examine race-related brain activation. They presented faces of black and white people to self-identified black and white participants. They found a differential response in the amygdala to black and white faces.

The amygdala is a brain structure involved in processing fear. When participants who self-identified as white saw black faces, their amygdala was more activated than when they saw white faces. One possible interpretation of these results is that the participants viewed black but not white faces as threatening.

How about the relationship between amygdala activation and explicit measures of prejudice (logical brain) such as questionnaires? Are they correlated? In other words, when someone’s score on an explicit measure of prejudice shows no trace of negative attitudes, would their amygdala also show a matching activation profile?

Phelps et al. (2000, experiment 1) examined the link between implicit, explicit measures of racial bias and amygdala activation. In the fMRI scanner, white participants were exposed to black and white faces, and were asked to complete an unrelated task. After the fMRI scanning session, they were asked to fill out implicit and explicit measures of racial attitudes.

Interestingly, amygdala activation was correlated with implicit, but not with explicit, assessment of racial attitudes. Indeed, the amygdala is potentially a part of the non-conscious reflexive system and thus was only correlated with the implicit measure of racial bias. Even when people answer favorably on explicit measures of racial attitudes, they might still unknowingly possess negative attitudes.

Are you eager to find out whether your amygdala has an attitude problem? As you might have guessed, fMRI is not a common fixture in many houses. However, there is a free online assessment that tries to trick your brain and expose what your non-conscious brain really thinks.

The test is called the Race Implicit Association Test IAT. It is available online at no cost. Go ahead take it; I am sure you will be surprised.

Many of these negative attitudes are reflexive in nature, and thus they may contribute to phenomena such as racial profiling, discrimination at work, and general limitations to opportunities. Workshops such as training to prevent prejudice in the workplace must address both the logical and reflexive brains to be successful.

I would like to see this implicit test administered as a part of the hiring process, or at the end of these training workshops to ensure that they were effective in reducing negative attitudes.

As far as the general public, in order to reduce negative attitudes toward others, we have to reprogram our reflexive mind. It is programmed by habits we choose to propagate, experiences we embed ourselves in, and information we surround ourselves with.

Watch my TEDx talk on “The Logical vs. Reflexive Brain: Only One Wins."


Chekroud, A. M., Everett, J. A. C., Bridge, H., & Hewstone, M. (2014). A review of neuroimaging studies of race-related prejudice: does amygdala response reflect threat? Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 8, 179.

Hart, A. J., Whalen, P. J., Shin, L. M., McInerney, S. C., Fischer H. & Rauch, S. L. (2000). Differential response in the human amygdala to racial outgroup vs ingroup face stimuli. Neuroreport, 11, 2351–2355 10.1097/00001756-200008030-00004

Phelps, E. A., O'Connor, K. J., Cunningham, W. A., Funayama, E. S., Gatenby, J. C. & Gore, J. C., et al. (2000). Performance on indirect measures of race evaluation predicts amygdala activation. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. 12, 729–738 10.1162/089892900562552

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