Research Shows that Bias Can Be Reversed at a Neural Level

Summary of:

Farmer, H., Hewstone, M., Spiegler, O., Morse, H., Saifullah, A., Pan, X., Fell, B., Charlesford, J., & Terbeck, S. (2020). Positive intergroup contact modulates fusiform gyrus activity to black and white faces. Scientific Reports, 10:2700. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-59633-9

Background & Theory

The authors evaluated implicit bias and the “own race face” effect in this article through the evaluation of 25 white males. The researchers performed their research with the use of an MRI machine to see the brain’s reaction to a myriad of photos during two different tasks. This showed that having a positive experience with those from a different race can genuinely produce positive effects in the brain when coming into contact with those of another race in other circumstances.

Research Question

The authors seek to answer the following question:

  1. How does intergroup contact play a role in the way the brain reacts to processing faces of black and white races?

Methods

The authors had 25 participants for this study, all of which were of white ethnicity, right-handed, and had no known neurological disorders (mean age=25.16, SD=4.56, 8 male). The authors selected 120 photos, 60 of black faces and 60 of white faces (with equality in terms of unique factors such as age), and had the participants evaluate these photos in two different tasks — a social categorization task and an individuation task. All participants in the study completed a questionnaire about their previous contact with black people (which showed to be diverse amongst the group). In addition to the questionnaire, all participants also performed the race IAT. While in an fMRI scanner, the participants then completed the two tasks that involved the photos. The results of the scans and the questionnaires were then evaluated.

Results

The results showed that the participants reacted more quickly to white faces than black, but more so in the social categorization task. The participants were also more accurate in regards to the social categorization task than the individuation task. There were no significant results showing a relationship between behavioral results and contact measures, or between contact measures and implicit bias. There was a significant finding when evaluating the MRI scans that showed much more activity in the left caudate nucleus when examining white faces as opposed to black faces. Additionally, the MRI scans showed higher activity in the fusiform gyrus during the social categorization task for black faces over white faces, but only for those who had higher positive contact with black people as shown in the questionnaire.

What This Means

  • Our experiences of intergroup contact, as well as experience in individuating the outgroup, play a role in how our brain processes faces (which ultimately affects some of our personal bias). 
  • This ultimately means that it may be possible to overcome racial biases through positive interaction with those of different races than our own, on a scientific and neural level.
  • While this study was focused on intergroup contact, it can be assumed that going a step further in understanding others’ perspectives, especially in the sense of pursuing positive relationships with those outside of our own ethnicity or belief systems, would also yield positive results.

Final Takeaway

For consultants: A fresh perspective never hurts. If positive intergroup experience has the ability to create positive changes in our brain, learning to see others’ perspectives in a positive light (or even just seeking to not see them as wrong) can likely have a positive impact and contribute to conflict resolution. Encourage yourself and your clients to open your minds.

For everyone: There is nothing negative about a positive experience. While nothing is guaranteed in life, try to create positive exchanges with those around you, especially those who view the world differently than you do. The benefits far outweigh the cost, and may bridge a gap between you, even past your former bias.