Neuroscientists May Have Discovered How Our Brains Can Overcome Racial Prejudice


If the public response to the shooting deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner has made one thing clear, it's that many consider the U.S. to be far from a post-racial society. America has certainly made progress since the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — the number of interracial marriages has surged, the education achievement gap between races has shrunk (class matters more now) and we've elected a black president into office twice.

Fifty years later, however, we're still living in a world where unarmed young black men fear being slain by the police; a world in which data shows how skin color overwhelmingly affects one's chance of getting handcuffed, arrested, convicted and sentenced to death row. It's not hard to see why so many Americans feel that, despite all we've achieved, overcoming racism for good is an impossible endeavor.

Demonstrators gather in Philadelphia on Dec. 3. Image Credit: Mark Makela via Getty

But recent research from neuroscientists suggests there is indeed hope for change, and it may not be as impossible as we imagine. According to the science, being a part of a diverse group — connected by a bond that isn't race — may help our brains perceive everyone in that group as part of "your people," regardless of racial makeup. If we know an individual is part of our group, our brains seem to react to the individual as being part of our group first and foremost — not an "other."

These findings may have important policy implications, from considering the demographics of our police forces, as Attorney General Eric Holder recently suggested the Ferguson Police Department should, to the way schools admit students and how we plan our cities in general.

The science

Psychologists have long known that humans have a propensity to distinguish between people who are like us — members of our "in group" — and those who aren’t.

But the concept of a group is rather flexible. According to Lehigh University psychologist Dominic Packer, we should think of a group basically as a psychological state.

"A group exists when a set of people start to feel like a group," he said.

So while it's become the norm to form groups along racial, ethnic and religious lines, these distinctions aren't special — they're just convenient. Knowing this, a team of researchers, including Packer, and led by New York University social neuroscientist Jay Van Bavel, used neuroimaging tools to see how our brains reacted to forced changes in groups.

They examined whether people of mixed races feel closer to each other when they're on the same team. To do this, Van Bavel's team expanded on a basic setup that similar studies have used: Researchers assign white study participants to different teams, one of which is mixed race, and tell everyone to memorize the faces of their teammates and opponents. Researchers then measure participants' neural activity while they perform simple tasks.

Demonstrators gather in Philadelphia on Dec. 3. Image Credit: Mark Makela via Getty

In a 2008 study, participants watched photos of other participants' faces flash across a screen for two seconds apiece. They first had to categorize the faces based on team membership and again based on race, and then rate their like and dislike of other participants on a scale of 1-6. While participants performed the identification tasks, researchers used neuroimaging tools to measure their response rates and observe activity changes in different areas of their brains.

Images showed that the amygdala, a key part of the brain for emotion, flared up in the brains of white participants when they viewed photos of their team members, regardless of race. In this context, researchers believe that amygdala activity reacted to what was most important and worthy of participants' attention: their team members. When race isn't relevant to group formation, Van Bavel explained, the brain seems to ignore racial differences to focus on what matters: whoever is in your group.

In a follow-up 2011 study, Van Bavel saw something surprising happen in a region of the brain called the Fusiform Face Area (FFA), which is critical for facial recognition. Shortly after getting their team assignments, participants performed a similar face-identification task and exhibited markedly heightened activity in FFA in response to members of their own team. Basically, people quickly identified their team members as people they should remember and disregarded non-team members as faceless outsiders to lump together.

In subsequent studies, Van Bavel changed up the basic group structure. For example, in a 2012 study, he made someone from each team a spy, a role that involved interacting with the opposing team. As Van Bavel suspected, the most gung-ho team members (based on a self-assessment) had the strongest recollection for in-group faces whereas the spies had heightened memories for the faces of people on other teams.

Demonstrators take over a bridge in New York to protest the decision in the Eric Garner trial. Image Credit: Associated Press

What it all means

Taken together, these conclusions suggest that once we're part of a group, our brains tell us to think, act and feel like a member, regardless of the group's racial makeup. Essentially, spending time in other groups creates brain-based bonds that may make people more likely to see others as distinguishable individuals, as opposed to just part of a group. This is a critical component to eliminating racial prejudice because distinguishing individuals is the first step toward connecting with another human.

"Responses to race that we think of as burned pretty deeply into the brain may be hard to override or regulate," Van Bavel said. "But it seems that if we can see a member of another race as part of our in-group, then we can reorient how we see the world and interpret people, which may help overcome biases."

Why this could be big

Van Bavel's findings contradict a well-observed psychological phenomenon with real-life implications called "own-race bias," which says people are better at remembering same-race faces than others. In terms of criminal justice, own-race bias translates to misidentifying suspects in police lineups, which leads to false convictions. In fact, as of a few years ago, around 40% of falsely convicted death-row inmates were victims of cross-race identification errors.

Police officers during the 1965 Los Angeles race riots. Image Credit: Keystone-France via Getty

There's no easy, or even identifiable, way to uproot systemic inequality. And there's certainly a wide gap between brain activity and public conduct. But, at the very least, knowledge that we can create brain-based bonds useful for overcoming prejudicial feelings is reason enough to keep plugging away at the problem.

"It's quite hopeful that creating minimal groups can completely trump something like racial bias," said Emile Bruneau, an MIT neuroscientist from MIT who's worked with Van Bavel on other research, "and that group difference can be eliminated if people focus on something else. [Van Bavel's research] shows how flexible the brain is, and that flexibility is something we can hang hope on."