Racism makes people stupid

Chris Brady cdbrady at sbcglobal.net
Mon Nov 17 18:14:23 MST 2003

Racial prejudice makes you stupider, new research finds

Encounters with another race made whites perform worse on cognitive test

   by Gareth Cook of the Boston Globe, in the San Francisco Chronicle,
Monday, November 17, 2003,  Page A - 2

To the litany of arguments against prejudice, scientists are now adding
a new one: Racism can make you stupid.

That is the message of an unusual and striking new series of experiments
conducted at Dartmouth College, with the help of brain-imaging equipment
and a crew of undergraduate volunteers.

According to the findings, the more biased people are, the more their
brain power is taxed by contact with someone of another race, as they
struggle not to say or do anything offensive. The effect is so strong,
the team found, that even a five-minute conversation with a black person
left some of the white subjects unable to perform well on a test of
cognitive ability.

“Just having a prejudice makes you stupider,” said John Gabrieli, a
professor of psychology at Stanford University who was not involved in
the research. “It is really interesting.”

Researchers cannot yet predict how racial bias as measured in the lab
will translate into overt racist attitudes or actions. But the new
brain- imaging work, reported in the journal Nature Neuroscience,
represents the most detailed look yet at the way racial biases function
in the brain.

The work also paints a dispiriting portrait of the state of the nation’s
race relations, the lead researcher said, even among the well-educated,
well- meaning Dartmouth undergraduates whom the scientists studied.

“I think people are getting caught in this trap where they are trying
not to do the wrong thing, rather than trying to act natural,” said
Jennifer Richeson, an assistant professor of psychological and brain
sciences at Dartmouth College. “Somehow, we have to get past this
awkward phase.”

Richeson and her colleagues began by recruiting a group of white
Dartmouth undergraduates and asked them to perform an “Implicit
Association Test,” a test that is widely used to measure unconscious
racial bias. The subject is given a screen and two buttons. First, the
subject is asked to push the button on the left if the word that appears
on the screen is a positive word, like beauty, or a common first name
for a white person, such as Nancy. Otherwise, they are instructed to
push the button on the right.

After a session, the test is changed slightly, and the names given are
those more common for a black person, such as Tyrone. The greater the
difference between the reaction times in the two sessions, the more the
person has trouble associating black names with positive concepts.

Next, the team had each of the students speak briefly with a black
experimenter and then perform a test of cognitive ability called the
Stroop test. They showed that the higher a bias score the student had in
the IAT test,

the worse they did on the Stroop test after speaking with the black

To uncover what was behind this effect, the team used a functional
magnetic resonance imager, which is able to peer inside the brain and
measure the level of activity in different areas.

Each student was then shown a series of photographs, some of white males
and some of black males. The more biased a student was, the more the
team saw a certain area of their brain activate, an area associated with
“executive control,” conscious efforts to direct thinking. This,
Richeson said, is a sign the brain is struggling not to think
inappropriate thoughts.

Based on the findings, the team suggested that when a biased person
interacts with someone of another race, even briefly, it exhausts the
part of the brain in charge of executive control, leaving it temporarily
unable to perform as well on the Stroop test and, presumably, other

The report is the first time that researchers have shown a connection
between racial bias and the parts of the brain responsible for higher
functions, according to several neuroscientists who were not involved in
the research.

It is part of a nascent movement to study the neurological basis of
social phenomena, in particular racism. One study, by Elizabeth Phelps
at New York University, found that biased people were more likely to
have greater activity in their amygdala, a portion of the brain
associated with negative emotions like fear, when shown the picture of a
black person they don’t know.

Another, conducted by Stanford’s Gabrieli and other scientists, showed
that the brains of white people process white and black faces
differently from the moment they see them.

©2003 San Francisco Chronicle

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