Human beings show greater persistence of learned fear toward members of another race than those of their own race, according to a study by scientists at New York University and Harvard University. The findings, which appear in the latest issue of Science, show this effect for both Black and White Americans.

The authors on this paper are Andreas Olsson, a graduate student in NYU’s Department of Psychology; Jeffrey Ebert, a graduate student in Harvard’s Department of Psychology; Mahzarin Banaji, professor of psychology at Harvard; and Elizabeth A. Phelps, professor of psychology and neural science at NYU.

After a negative encounter, humans and other primates have a harder time shaking off fears of snakes and spiders compared to birds and butterflies. The findings in Science show that human beings have a similarly difficult time letting go of fears of people from another race.

Researchers presented Black and White Americans images of faces of two Black and two White unfamiliar males. In the first phase, a mildly uncomfortable shock was paired with the presentation of one of the Black faces and one of the White faces. The level of shock was chosen by each participant to be uncomfortable but not painful. In a second phase, the same faces were presented, but this time without the shock. Fear responses were measured through changes in the sweat glands due to arousal, which provides a glimpse into the person’s emotional state.

As expected, all participants acquired a fear response to images of both Black and White individuals that were paired with shock. However, when shocks were no longer administered, the fear response to the face from the participant’s own race diminished, while the fear response to the face from the other race persisted. These results suggest that fear learning is influenced by social group, as defined by race.

The researchers also sought to understand if this persistence of fear learning was related to attitudes and beliefs about racial groups or the amount of contact with individuals of another racial group. The only measure found to influence the fear learning bias was interracial dating. Specifically, the persistence of fear toward members of another racial group was diminished among those with more interracial dating experience. This is consistent with a substantial body of research demonstrating that positive inter-group contact reduces negativity towards outgroups.

“It is likely that both evolutionary factors and socio-cultural learning play a role in the greater persistence of fear learning toward those of another race,” said Phelps. “However, race inherently cannot be the basis for this effect because of its relatively recent emergence as an important dimension in human social interaction. Instead, our cultural surroundings tell us about the identity and qualities of other social groups, and this may be linked to an evolutionary predisposition to learn to fear members of social groups other than our own.”

“Our discovery underscores the strong bond between person and social group,” said Banaji. “It shows how strong is the ‘pull’ that the groups we belong to exert on us. We can’t shake off the group easily. The optimistic news is that this predisposition to fear members of another race may be changed by close personal contact. We are products of our evolutionary history and our immediate social environment; the former we don’t control, the latter we most certainly do.”

Press Contact