By ROB WAUGH
PUBLISHED: 05:33 EST, 26 June 2012 | UPDATED: 09:12 EST, 26 June 2012
- Same circuits that allow people to judge ethnic groups also drive emotional decisions
- Even ‘right thinking’ people can have racist attitudes
- Racism operates below the conscious level
Racism is hardwired into the brain, say scientists – and it operates unconsciously.
The same circuits in the brain that allow us to see which ethnic group a person belongs to overlap with others that drive emotional decisions.
The result is that even right-thinking individuals make unconscious decisions based on a person’s race.
Skinhead: But most racism operates on an unconscious level, say researchers – and even ‘right thinking’ individuals may react in a racist way
Brain scans have proved that interactions with people of other ethnic backgrounds set off reactions that may be completely unknown to our conscious selves.
The finding may force researchers to think about racism in entirely new ways.
It’s possible, the researchers say, that even right-thinking, ‘egalitarian’ people could harbour racist attitudes without knowing.
The chemicals involved in perceiving ethnic backgrounds overlap with those for processing emotion and making decisions, according to new research.
And the findings published in Nature Neuroscience could lead to fresh ways of thinking about unintended race-based attitudes and decisions.
Dr Elizabeth Phelps, of New York University, and colleagues reviewed previous brain scanning studies showing how social categories of race are processed, evaluated and incorporated in decision-making.
They showed a network of brain regions called the the amygdala, dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex are important in the unintentional, implicit expression of racial attitudes.
The researchers said the brain areas themselves – as well as the functional connectivity among them – are critical for this processing.
Dr Phelps said: ‘A few decades ago, it was unthinkable that looking at the brain to understand representations of social groups such as black versus white was even possible.’
Dr Phelps said: ‘A few decades ago, it was unthinkable that looking at the brain to understand representations of social groups such as black versus white was even possible, let alone that such explorations could yield useful knowledge.
‘Evidence from neuroscience has been vital in clarifying the nature of how intergroup cognition unfolds.
‘Moreover, the neuroscience of race has been useful in pointing the way toward the type of new behavioural evidence needed to answer questions of not only what happens when intergroup cognition is at stake, but whether and how change is possible in real human interactions.
‘How to use this knowledge from brain and behaviour to further extend basic knowledge and to drive applications is the obvious next generation of questions that we must pose.
‘If good people who intend well act in a manner inconsistent with their own standards of egalitarianism because of the racial groups to which ‘the other’ belongs, then the question of change takes on new and urgent meaning.
‘This urgency requires that we attend to the evidence about how our minds work when we confront racial and other group differences.
‘Thus far, we have obtained modest evidence about these processes as they operate in our brains, unbeknownst to our conscious selves. The question of what we will do with these insights awaits an answer.’