Bias in the brain | psychology today


“Prejudice, a dirty word, and faith, a clean word, have something in common: they both start where reason ends.” —Harper Lee, go put a guard

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Its consequences can reach the most remote corners of the Earth. Yet prejudice is engineered in the quiet confines of the human mind.

Scientists from all disciplines have made progress in discovering why and how we form our attitudes towards others. Yet much remains a mystery.

In his social neuroscience lab at NYU, Professor David Amodio studies the neural mechanisms underlying social prejudice. 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 to shed light on how bias works in the brain.

Here are nine questions about bias with Dr. Amodio.

Does everyone feel bias?

There is an important distinction between harmful beliefs and harmful reactions. Many people reject prejudice in terms of beliefs. But even these people notice the groups and can have detrimental automatic reactions to them. Research on stereotypes shows that just knowing about a group’s stereotypes leads to that stereotype being automatically activated in your mind – even if you consciously reject that stereotype. Thus, prejudice has automatic and deliberate aspects, and while some people deliberately reject it, everyone has some form of prejudice.

Who are people prejudiced against?

People are prejudiced against various groups for multiple reasons. The mere fact of belonging to different groups, based on arbitrary distinctions, is enough to create prejudice. However, competition between groups, power hierarchies and political conflicts can exacerbate prejudice and turn simple dislike into hatred and evil.

What is at the heart of prejudice?

Differences, of all kinds. But from there, you can overlay social dynamics like competition, threat, and fear, and these drive prejudice to become more intense, entrenched, and oppressive.

What role do emotions play in prejudice?


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As with most psychological processes, emotions drive how we react to others and how we act towards them. Many emotions are associated with prejudice – you may feel hatred towards political outgroups, pity towards the poor, threat or dominance towards 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 bias look like in the brain?

People first turned to neuroscience to understand the automatic aspects of bias, which have been difficult to study with traditional behavioral methods. Although early work searched for a single neural substrate for implicit bias, we quickly found that many different neural processes contribute to a detrimental 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 activate when we have emotional reactions to groups.

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

What information can we learn from social neuroscience about prejudice?

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

For example, an interesting idea comes from cognitive categorization – one of the main building blocks of prejudice. Our mind categorizes objects in our world in order to respond to them. The same processes apply when we look at other humans. This is why we categorize people into groups so easily and quickly. Social neuroscience has identified a sequence of processes involved in social categorization that begins just 100 milliseconds after seeing a face.

Another idea is that biases 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 is very difficult for the perceiver detect and control bias. Social neuroscience has even shown that prejudice affects our ability to perceive an out-of-group person’s face as a human face. Configurable face encoding is the degree to which your brain – when looking at a face – recognizes that the eyes, nose and mouth in front of you come together to form 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 against them or motivated to ignore them. We find that how we view outgroup members depends on our goals, which, in turn, has downstream implications for discriminatory behavior.

Can prejudice be controlled?

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

What is an antidote to feeling prejudice?


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I wish I could say it’s something as simple as ‘love’ or ‘compassion’, but research shows that bias goes way beyond an individual’s mind and feelings. . If there is an antidote, it has more to do with the structure of our society and our institutions. For example, we know from classical social psychology that categorizing ingroup and outgroup members into a larger category (e.g., given our common humanity) can reduce bias.

However, while structural change is the goal, social neuroscience has expanded our understanding of how an individual can control their biases, separating control into different component processes and showing the conditions under which we effectively regulate. Although it is difficult to remove biases from the mind, self-control can prevent them from expressing themselves in behavior. That in itself is a laudable goal.

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

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

Many thanks to David Amodio for his time and ideas. Dr. Amodio is a professor of psychology and neural sciences at NYU and director of the social neuroscience laboratory. He is also a professor of social psychology at the University of Amsterdam.


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