Inside the Brain: Researchers Delve Into the Subconscious

“In modern America, we believe racism to be the property of the uniquely villainous and morally deformed, the ideology of trolls, gorgons, and orcs,” social commentator Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in a New York Times essay. “We believe this even when we are actually being racist.” Coates is commenting directly on a 2012 incident in which renowned actor Forest Whitaker was profiled as a shoplifter in a New York deli, but he also draws from this disturbing episode a larger point about the way Americans rush to distance themselves from overtly biased actions while denying their connection to the system that creates that ideology in the first place.

Photo: CLIPAREA/Shutterstock

Though Coates arrives at his point as a cultural historian, his argument mirrors discoveries in the sciences over the last twenty years that have uncovered the mental processes that create and perpetuate racial prejudice. For most of the 20th century, researchers and theorists viewed racism as a pathology, focusing on radical expressions of racial hatred. In recent decades, however, our understanding of racism has shifted to the way in which most of us make tiny decisions every day that may express subconscious bias. Neuropsychologist Susan T. Fiske writes, “Our own prejudice — and our children’s and grandchildren’s prejudice if we don’t address it — takes a more subtle, unexamined form. People can identify another person’s apparent race, gender, and age in a matter of milliseconds. In this blink of an eye, a complex network of stereotypes, emotional prejudices, and behavioral impulses activates.”

Social psychologists Samuel Gaertner and Jack Dovidio coined the term “aversive racism” to describe the behavior of people who outwardly espouse egalitarian beliefs about racial equality but who exhibit signs of underlying bias; their theory has been supported by dozens of experiments that examine the contexts of hiring, helping strangers, and jury deliberation, among others.

An fMRI image of amygdala activity during a study of implicit racial bias. Photo: David Amodio

Playwright Lydia R. Diamond began writing Smart People when she learned of efforts to combine sociological hypotheses about racial bias with more definitive evidence from the fields of neuroscience and brain imaging. Particularly influential to Diamond was neuropsychologists Fiske and Lasana T. Harris’s 2006 study “Dehumanizing the Lowest of the Low: Neuroimaging Responses to Extreme Outgroups,” which considered how our brains process “outgroups,” or sets of people held in low regard by modern society, such as the homeless and drug addicts. The study showed that, in an experimental setting, subjects reacted to drug addicts with the same revulsion as one might at a disgusting object, rather than use the parts of their brain that are connected to evaluating human beings. Fiske and Harris approach these results with a sense of caution, only drawing limited conclusions about their direct evidence. But as they note in their study, “group dehumanization is as old as the U.S. Constitution,” alluding to the three- fifths compromise around representation and slaves.

At the heart of neuroscientists’ study of bias is finding ways to separate subconscious beliefs from self-reported ones. Scientists Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald, authors of the recent book Blind Spot: Hidden Biases of Good People, developed a procedure called the Implicit Association Test. Their measure, available online for the public to try at, provides a glimpse at our brains’ automatic reactions to different groups of people. The test looks at how quickly we sort different groups; for example, do we subconsciously associate men with careers in science or as leaders? “IAT test-takers are often surprised by unexpected results,” Banaji and Greenwald write. “Some gain a new sense of self- awareness as they discover associations that were previously hidden. Some admire the simplicity of the IAT’s method at unearthing something inside their minds of which they had no prior knowledge. And some are incredulous — they don’t believe the test could possibly be producing valid results. A minority of first-time takers of the IAT express hostility toward the test, which appears to be ‘accusing’ them of harboring an objectionable bias — a reaction we understand and with which we sympathize.”

Banaji and Greenwald are quick to point out that implicit racial bias is different than overt racism, and researchers are building on their work now to look at ways we may be able to rewire our brains to create new sets of assumptions and connections. Any progress will be slow; meta-analysis published in Personality and Social Psychology Review in 2005 showed that implicit associations towards black Americans have remained generally constant in recent decades even as the outward civil rights picture has changed drastically, and a 2010 study suggested that the early years of President Barack Obama’s first term had little effect on implicit associations about African- Americans as revealed by the IAT.

A composite of images shown on the Project Implicit online test for racial bias.

Though studies like these are inspiration for the central character’s research in Smart People, the play imagines a world in which the character can prove a larger, more controversial hypothesis. His findings are not the subject of Smart People, but one of its metaphors for the process of seeing and being seen and for the stake we all share in cultural conversations about race, gender, and class. The play's desire for a unified field theory of racism echoes a cultural desire to find common ground on the question, a starting point from which we all can move forward.

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