The Science of What Keeps Us Apart

Author: Kaitlin Weskamp

Editors: Shweta Ramdas, Alex Taylor, and Kevin Boehnke

“… in diversity there is beauty and there is strength.” 
             ― Maya Angelou

Over time, there has been a general trend towards acceptance and inclusivity in the civil rights laws of the United States. From the abolition of slavery in 1865, to granting women the right to vote in 1920, to the legalization of gay marriage in 2015, we are making torturously-slow-but-steady progress towards the promise that “all men [and women] are created equal.”

Today, the majority of people in the U.S. agree with Maya Angelou that diversity lends strength to our community. However, racism, sexism, and homophobia remain enormous societal issues. Is there a neurological basis for these ideas? If so, how can we combat it?

bias

Two Types of Bias

First, let’s distinguish between the two primary types of bias. The first is explicit bias, the conscious belief that one’s own group is superior to others. The second is implicit bias, an unconscious, automatic response to people belonging to groups other than our own. These are two very different concepts. Explicit ideological bias drives organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan and Westboro Baptist Church. On the other hand, most people exhibit implicit bias, like when we gush about our “gay best friend” or make assumptions about the race of the person who cut us off in traffic.

Though explicit bias is more overt, both are harmful. In fact, implicit bias is often more insidious and difficult to address. Here, we will focus on the underpinnings of implicit bias and examine how to prevent it from shaping the world around us.

In-Group or Out

As most of us learned in middle school, humans have a basic psychological need to feel that they are part of a group or community. This desire to feel connected to others, termed “relatedness,” is accompanied by the tendency to prefer people who are similar to us. We are generally attracted to those who share our personality, education level, physical appearance, and even genetics. As a result, we are naturally inclined to gravitate toward people like us, our “in-group.” Everyone else forms our “out-group.”

Not only do these groups form, but they also guide how we treat the people in our “out-group.” In one study, researchers observed an area of the brain associated with empathy (the anterior insula) while participants watched videos of faces experiencing pain. Participants’ empathetic neural response increased when they watched people of their own race experience pain, but this response decreased significantly when participants viewed the faces of other races.

This observation is not limited to racial groups, as shown by a similar study conducted on soccer fans. Participants observed a fan of their favorite team or a rival team experiencing pain, and they were given the choice to help the fan by enduring a portion of the physical pain themselves. As expected, the participants were more willing to share the pain of a fellow fan than that of a rival.

Fear of the Unknown

Rationally, we know that our race, sexual orientation, or gender is not superior to anyone else’s. Why, then, are we more empathetic towards and comfortable around people like ourselves? One possible answer is fear. In one study, researchers monitored the activity of the amygdala, a brain region associated with fear, while participants viewed images of individuals with either African or Caucasian features. Activity in the amygdala increased when Caucasian-American participants viewed people with African features compared to Caucasian features, suggesting an automatic fear response to their out-group.

Moreover, if you take fear out of the equation, bias toward the out-group is reduced. In another study, participants treated with propranolol, a drug thought to reduce fear, anxiety, and memory recall, scored markedly lower on a test to measure implicit racial bias than those that received a placebo.

Conquering Our Implicit Biases

Though it seems to be human nature to prefer people similar to us and fear those that are different, take comfort. There is emerging evidence that fear can be conquered, and, as fear disappears, bias fades alongside it. In a study from the University of Delaware, Chinese children were shown racially ambiguous faces that combined Asian and African features. Of these pictures, some were smiling while the others were frowning. When asked about the race of the person in the picture, the children tended to describe the angry faces as African and the friendly faces as Asian.

However, when the researchers introduced a separate set of African faces, this time assigning names and stories to each face to increase comfort and relatability, the children were far less likely to indicate that angry, racially ambiguous faces were African. Additionally, those with friends of a certain ethnicity are less likely to exhibit bias against that ethnic group, suggesting that exposure to and familiarity with our out-group are strong tools to combat our own implicit biases.

We live in an increasingly globalized world; if we are open, we have access to more beliefs, backgrounds, and ideologies than ever before. Though it may be tempting to hide in the comfort of our “in-group,” stepping out is essential to challenge our implicit bias that not only hurts our out-group but also denies us the opportunity to expand and evolve our own ideologies and beliefs. Only by making the unknown known can we combat fear and the biases that follow.

 

About the author

kaitlin-weskampKaitlin is a doctoral student in the Neuroscience Graduate Program at the University of Michigan. Her research focuses on how hyperactive neurons play a role in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a neurodegenerative disease that affects the function of nerves and muscles. She holds a degree biochemistry and molecular biology from Nebraska Wesleyan University, where she also studied mathematics and art. Kate spends her free time painting, hiking, cooking, and walking dogs at the local animal shelter.

Read all posts by Kaitlin here.

 

Image Source: https://pixabay.com/en/human-head-man-male-cranium-1211467

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