April 11, 2013
Racial stereotypes have been shown to have subtle and unintended consequences on how we treat members of different race groups. According to new research by the Department of Psychology’s Elizabeth Phelps and Eyal Bar-David, race bias also increases differences in the brain’s representations of faces.
The study, which was published in the journal Psychological Science, was co-authored with psychological scientist Tobias Brosch of the University of Geneva.
Their research examined activity in the brain while participants looked at pictures of white and black faces. Afterwards, participants performed a task that assessed their unconscious, or implicit, expression of race attitudes.
By studying patterns of brain activity in the fusiform face area—a brain area involved in face perception—the researchers were able to predict the race of the person that the participant was viewing, but only for those participants with stronger negative implicit race attitudes.
These results suggest that the ways in which black and white faces are represented in this brain region differ for people with a stronger implicit race bias compared to people with less or no bias. This implies that people with stronger, negative implicit race attitudes may actually perceive black and white faces to look more different.
Brosch notes that “these results suggest it may be possible to predict differences in implicit race bias at the individual level using brain data.” Phelps, a professor in NYU’s Department of Psychology and Center for Neural Science, adds: “Although these findings may be of interest given the behavioral and societal implications of race bias, our ability to predict race bias based on brain data is relatively modest at this time.”
This study was funded in part by grants from the National Institutes of Health, the Seaver Foundation, and the Swiss National Science Foundation.