The neuroscience of prejudice and stereotyping

Despite global increases in diversity, social prejudices continue to fuel intergroup conflict, disparities and discrimination. Moreover, as norms have become more egalitarian, prejudices seem to have ‘gone underground’, operating covertly and often unconsciously, such that they are difficult to detect and control. Neuroscientists have recently begun to probe the neural basis of prejudice and stereotyping in an effort to identify the processes through which these biases form, influence behavior and are regulated. This research aims to elucidate basic mechanisms of the social brain while advancing our understanding of intergroup bias in social behavior. ref

Stereotyping Neural Network

Neural structures that underlie components of intergroup stereotyping. Semantic information stored in the lateral temporal lobe — especially representations of stereotype-related knowledge about people and social groups in the anterior temporal lobe (ATL) — is recruited into the dorsal medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) to support the formation of impressions (that is, stereotypes) and, in conjunction, into the inferior frontal gyrus (IFG) to support goal-directed actions that are guided by these stereotypes. In particular, the anterior temporal lobe (ATL) is associated with the representation of social knowledge, such as attributes that describe people but not inanimate objects. The dorsal part of the ATL, which is implicated more specifically in the representation of social objects (that is, people), is densely interconnected with the regions of the mPFC that are associated with trait judgement and impression formation. This suggests that social information represented in the ATL is selected into the mPFC to support the process of social cognition. Not surprisingly, the ATL is frequently implicated in studies of stereotype representation. In one fMRI study examining the neural basis of stereotyping, subjects considered either social or non-social categories (for example, men versus women or violins versus guitars) and judged which category was more likely to be characterized by a particular feature (for example, enjoys romantic comedies or has six strings). A contrast of brain activity between social and non-social conditions revealed that ATL activity was uniquely activated during stereotype-relevant judgements of social categories. A different fMRI study used multivoxel pattern analysis (MVPA) to examine neural activity representing judgements of black and white individuals on the basis of stereotype traits (athleticism) versus evaluations (potential for friendship)49. Results showed that when subjects made trait judgements, a behavioral index of implicit stereotyping correlated with ATL activity, and when they made evaluative judgements, a behavioral index of implicit racial attitudes correlated with activity in the same part of the ATL. Consistent with these findings, the disruption of ATL activity by transcranial magnetic stimulation attenuated the behavioral expression of implicit gender stereotype associations94, suggesting a neural network for stereotyping. The research suggests that a network of neural structures supports stereotyping processes. The ATL is believed to represent stereotype-related knowledge, and it provides input to the mPFC, possibly also during the online formation of impressions about an individual. In this way, social stereotypes ‘stored’ in the ATL may influence trait impression processes associated with dorsal mPFC activity. The application of stereotypes to behavior seems to involve regions of the lateral PFC that are associated with goal representation and response inhibition. Together, the structures in this putative network may support the storage, activation and behavioral expression of social stereotypes. ref

Despite some success in reducing behavioral and physiological expressions of implicit bias in the laboratory, most forms of implicit learning are resistant to extinction. Implicit racial biases are particularly difficult to change in a cultural milieu that constantly reinforces racial prejudices and stereotypes (for example, in mainstream media). Thus, although attempts to undo learned intergroup associations are laudable, such strategies may be ineffective for reducing the expression of bias in behavior outside the laboratory. Instead, interventions that enhance the cognitive control of behavior should be more effective. Such control-based strategies may not reduce prejudice in the mind, but they can prevent its effect on potential victims. Over time, control-driven changes in behavior may become habitual, and prejudiced and stereotypical associations in the mind may weaken. Neuroscience models suggest that control-based interventions should focus on (at least) two separate processes: those for monitoring unwanted racially biased tendencies and those involved in the top-down control of behavior. Strategies to enhance ACC-mediated conflict-monitoring processes include interventions that increase people’s awareness of the potential for bias, increase attention to specific cues indicating that control may be needed (for example, the appearance of an outgroup member in an interaction) and increase the sensitivity of conflict monitoring systems (for example, by activating cognitive conflict prior to an intergroup response). For the effective control of behavior, conflict monitoring processes must be paired with top-down response plans. To this end, psychological research has shown that goal strategies that link a specific cue (for example, ‘if I meet a black person’) with a pre-planned response (for example, ‘I will ignore his or her race’ or ‘I will respond more carefully’) are especially. ref

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