Humans Are Wired For Prejudice But That Doesn’t Have To Be The End Of The Story

All people have prejudices, but learning more about them could help keep them in check. Crowd image via www.shutterstock.com.

Danielle Andrew 17 Sep 2016, 10:45

The ConversationHumans 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.

Our brains can almost instantly assess in-group or out-group status. Daniela Hartmann, CC BY-NC-SA

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).

Neural structures that underlie components of a prejudiced response. The neuroscience of prejudice and stereotyping, David M. Amodio

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.

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