The human brain may be hard-wired to pick up negative stereotypes regarding groups that tend to be portrayed unfavorably by the media, a neuroscientist from University College London and his colleagues reported in a recent edition of the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience.
According to The Guardian and the Daily Mail, a group led by Dr. Hugo Spiers of UCL found that the brain has a stronger response to information about groups that are portrayed negatively, suggesting that unfavorable depictions of ethnic or religious minorities can lead to bias.
Dr. Spiers and his colleagues recruited 22 individuals and presented them with descriptions of fictional majority and minority social groups, and used functional MRI (fMRI) scans to monitor their brain activity while they were presented with information about both of these groups.
The two main groups were secretly designated as being “good” or “bad,” with two-thirds of the information presented to the subjects fitting the stereotype and the other one-third running to the contrary. The fMRI scans revealed that, as the participants gathered a view of each ethnic group, activity in part of the brain called the anterior temporal pole revealed an acquired prejudice.
When subjects were exposed to enough stories to feel that the one group was essentially good, activity in the anterior temporal pole rapidly began to decline, the researchers said. However, it continued to respond strongly to negative news regarding the so-called “bad” ethnic group.
Study could reveal the brain’s role in the formation of prejudices
By using this brain activity, Dr. Spiers told The Guardian, scientists could potentially be able to “mathematically track prejudice second by second” in order to determine a person’s level of bias. Furthermore, the scans revealed that the brain had a different response to good and bad news.
“The negative groups become treated as more and more negative. Worse than the equivalent for the positive groups,” the UCL neuroscientist told the UK newspaper. “[But] whenever someone from a really bad group did something nice they were like, ‘Oh, weird.’”
While previous research has identified the parts of the brain involved in racial or gender-based stereotyping, the authors said that this study marks the first time that scientists have attempted to discover how the brain becomes conditioned to link undesirable traits with specific groups, thus laying the groundwork for the formation of prejudices over time.
“The newspapers are filled with ghastly things people do… You’re getting all these news stories and the negative ones stand out,” Dr. Spiers said to The Guardian. “When you look at Islam, for example, there’s so many more negative stories than positive ones and that will build up over time.”
He also told reporters that the future research in the field may reveal whether or not differences in brain structure could explain why some individuals hold racist or sexist views, and could also explore how a person “unlearns” a stereotype – i.e., whether or not the anterior temporal pole is involved in that process as well.
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