Humans are highly social creatures. Our brains have evolved to allow us to survive and thrive in complex social environments. Accordingly, the behaviors and emotions that help us navigate our social sphere are entrenched in networks of neurons within our brains.
Social motivations, such as the desire to be a member of a group or to compete with others, are among the most basic human drives. In fact, our brains are able to assess “in-group” (us) and “out-group” (them) membership within a fraction of a second. This ability, once necessary for our survival, has largely become a detriment to society.
Understanding the neural network controlling these impulses, and those that temper them, may shed light on how to resolve social injustices that plague our world.
Prejudice in the brain
In social psychology, prejudice is defined as an attitude toward a person on the basis of his or her group membership. Prejudice evolved in humans because at one time it helped us avoid real danger. At its core, prejudice is simply an association of a sensory cue (e.g., a snake in the grass, the growling of a wolf) to an innate behavioral response (e.g., fight-and-flight). In dangerous situations time is of the essence, and so human beings adapted mechanisms to respond quickly to visual cues that our brains deem dangerous without our conscious awareness. The rub in all of this is that our brains have inherited the tendency to erroneously deem something dangerous when it is in fact benign. It is safer to make false-positive assumptions (avoid something that was good), than to make false-negative assumptions (not avoid something that was bad).
Neuroscience has begun to tease out the neural underpinnings of prejudice in the human brain. We now know that prejudiced behavior is controlled through a complex neural pathway consisting of cortical and sub-cortical regions.
A brain structure called the amygdala is the seat of classical fear conditioning and emotion in the brain. Psychological research has consistently supported the role of fear in prejudiced behavior. For this reason, the vast majority of brain research on this topic has focused on the amygdala and the cortical regions that influence it.