November 17, 2003
White Minds React To Black Faces With fMRI Watching

Picture a politically correct job interview in which both participants get their brains recorded while they go through the interview.

"We were surprised to find that brain activity in response to faces of black individuals predicted how research participants performed on cognitive tasks after actual interracial interactions," says Jennifer Richeson, Assistant Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences, the lead author on the paper. "To my knowledge, this is the first study to use brain imaging data in tandem with more standard behavioral data to test a social psychological theory."

Their findings suggest that harboring racial bias, however unintentional, makes negotiating interracial interactions more cognitively demanding. Similar to the depletion of a muscle after intensive exercise, the data suggest that the demands of the interracial interaction result in reduced capacity to engage in subsequent cognitive tasks, say the researchers.

For the study, thirty white individuals were measured for racial bias, which involved a computer test to record the ease with which individuals associate white American and black American racial groups with positive and negative concepts. Racial bias is measured by a pattern in which individuals take longer to associate the white Americans with negative concepts and black Americans with positive concepts. The study participants then interacted with either a black or a white individual, and afterward they were asked to complete an unrelated cognitive task in which they had to inhibit instinctual responses. In a separate fMRI session, these individuals were presented with photographs of unfamiliar black male and white male faces, and the activity of brain regions thought to be critical to cognitive control was assessed.

"We found that white people with higher scores on the racial bias measure experienced greater neural activity in response to the photographs of black males," says Richeson. "This heightened activity was in the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, an area in the front of the brain that has been linked to the control of thoughts and behaviors. Plus, these same individuals performed worse on the cognitive test after an actual interaction with a black male, suggesting that they may have been depleted of the necessary resources to complete the task."

According to Richeson, most people find it unacceptable to behave in prejudiced ways during interracial interactions and make an effort to avoid doing so, regardless of their level of racial bias. A different research project by Richeson and her colleagues suggested that these efforts could leave individuals temporarily depleted of the resources needed to perform optimally on certain cognitive tasks. This new study by Richeson provides striking evidence that supports the idea that interracial contact temporarily impairs cognitive task performance.

This study will of course occasion considerable discussion about the continued existence of racial stereotypes and the harm therefrom. But since this site is dedicated to taking less conventional looks at human nature and our future let us look at some other issues that others will tend to ignore.

What would be interesting is to see this study repeated with much larger groups of people of different races, occupations, and histories of living in different areas. Does the feeling of bias run stronger among those who have more or less experience with other races? Does it vary as a function of age of the person when the most experience of other races happened. Does it run stronger as some sort of function of IQ? Does it vary as a function of personality type with someone who is outgoing having more or less bias than someone who is shy and retiring? Do some races bear more animosity or fear toward other races? This result was only with whites and a pretty small sample of them. So the really interesting questions can't be answered.

Think about the economic implications of this work. People whose work performance varies a great deal as a function of how much cognitive effort they can muster (for instance engineers, computer programmers) ought to avoid sources of cognitive drain. One way to avoid sources of cognitive drain would be to isolate oneself from them (like by not answering a phone call from a girlfriend who wants an emotionally complicated conversation while I'm trying to program something complicated - not that I'd ever do such a thing. But gotta love caller ID! ;>). Another way might be to learn desensitization techniques. If a biofeedback machine or some other device could allow one to measure the extent of one's responses one might be able to learn to dampen the responses that cause cognitive drain.

There are other implications that go beyond race. What kinds of physical appearance and personality characteristics in some people cause which other kinds of people to strain to react cordially? Are there personality types that are simply incompatible and that will drain off too much in the way of cognitive resources when working with each other? Could employers use that knowledge to divide people up into teams that will reduce the total amount of cognitive waste that results from emotional reactions between co-workers?

Share |      Randall Parker, 2003 November 17 11:20 AM  Biological Mind


Comments
Zack Lynch said at November 17, 2003 11:47 AM:

Randall,

Fantastic questions in the last 3 paragraphs:

What would be interesting is to see this study repeated with much larger groups of people of different races, occupations, and histories of living in different areas. -- Should be done.

Does the feeling of bias run stronger among those who have more or less experience with other races? -- Good point, easily testable, but how has TV changed this...international study required, there are a few billion who don't watch TV much.

Does it vary as a function of age of the person when the most experience of other races happened. Does it run stronger as some sort of function of IQ? -- How about EQ?

Does it vary as a function of personality type with someone who is outgoing having more or less bias than someone who is shy and retiring? --again personality typing would help

Do some races bear more animosity or fear toward other races? This result was only with whites and a pretty small sample of them. So the really interesting questions can't be answered. -- Yep, pathetic study in that regard.

Think about the economic implications of this work. People whose work performance varies a great deal as a function of how much cognitive effort they can muster (for instance engineers, computer programmers) ought to avoid sources of cognitive drain. -- The best team environments I've worked in have been multi-racial, multi-cultural ones of respect.

One way to avoid sources of cognitive drain would be to isolate oneself from them (like by not answering a phone call from a girlfriend who wants an emotionally complicated conversation while I'm trying to program something complicated - not that I'd ever do such a thing. But gotta love caller ID! ;>). --especially for "area not known, name not known" computer calls.

Another way might be to learn desensitization techniques. If a biofeedback machine or some other device could allow one to measure the extent of one's responses one might be able to learn to dampen the responses that cause cognitive drain.--Yes, Read Steven Johnson's forthcoming book, Mind Wide Open.

There are other implications that go beyond race. What kinds of physical appearance and personality characteristics in some people cause which other kinds of people to strain to react codially? --There are some basic principles of beauty across cultures. I'm thinking of the morphing that was done in a Micheal Jackson video a decade back. I think some folks at MIT have done this research on "affect"

Are there personality types that are simply incompatible and that will drain off too much in the way of cognitive resources when working with each other? ---Of course, the question is how could we develop tools for accelerating understanding. Maybe that's called education.

Could employers use that knowledge to divide people up into teams that will reduce the total amount of cognitive waste that results from emotional reactions between co-workers? --Yes, but differences also develop conversation edges that are critical to innovation. I think it depends on the problem set.

Randall Parker said at November 17, 2003 3:29 PM:

Zack, This report is also an argument for the efficacy of your emoticeuticals. If people can so easily become stressed by the stimulus of dealing with people they react to in negative emotional ways then the implications for productivity seem profound. How much do people react this way in the course of a day? Racial reactions are really just the tip of the iceberg. Plenty of people hate or fear or are disgusted by particular individuals or groups of various sorts. If people could manage their reactions to keep them from draining cognitive resources then they could be a lot more productive.

Bob Badour said at November 17, 2003 6:01 PM:

These results certainly argue against tokenism in the workforce and against promotion on the basis of seniority over merit.

Vincent Lobo said at April 23, 2005 2:38 AM:

My mother 53 years old is suffering from lung fibrosis, she was very active before getting
afflicted by this disease, I really feel for her condition, if someone out there who knows about any treatment
available including stem cell treatment please do give me a mail.

Thanks and warm regards

Vincent

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