Posts Tagged ‘Susan Fiske’

Unconscious Hate

May 31, 2018

Mahatma Gandhi: If you love peace, then hate injustice, hate tyranny, hate greed—but hate these things in yourself, not in another.

This is the fourth chapter in The OPPOSITE of HATE: A Field Guide to Repairing our humanity by Sally Kohn. HM has come to the firm conclusion that human cognition needs to be taught in the public schools, continuing in elementary school through high school. The reason we do and believe things, unconscious hate among them, is that we are unaware of our nonconscious processing. That is thoughts of which we are unaware but influence what we think and how we act. Moreover, most people think that bias is bad, something to be avoided. The reality is that we receive much more information than we can process. So to select the information that we can process we need to be biased. Heuristics are beneficial biases we employ to process information.

Ms. Kohn writes, “..I don’t think that the vast majority of Americans—right, left, and center—are deliberate explicit bigots. But I do think all of us need to come to terms with the fact that we all hold unconscious ideas about the superiority of some groups and the interiority of others—ideas that may not be expressed like they were in 1950s Virginia but that come from the same history and hateful legacy. And when I say all of us, I really do mean everyone. Myself included. And you, too. “

Research in both neuroscience and psychology can explain why. A professor of neuroscience at the University of Chicago, Jennifer Kubota, has focused her research on implicit bias and the brain. Her research explains how stereotypes are recorded in the brain. It involves a structure in the brain with which healthy memory blog readers should be familiar. There is an amygdala on each side of the center of the brain. The amygdala is involved in the processing of emotions including fear. There is no one “center’ of emotion. The amygdala is involved “in learning about important or threatening or novel things in our environment. When we need it, the amygdala quickly recalls what’s been learned so we can just as quickly evaluate whatever situation we’re in and respond accordingly. The amygdala can be thought of as an efficient filing cabinet for everything society has taught that our brains have absorbed. The amygdala takes in whatever messages that are around it—including the endemic racial stereotypes—that percolate through the media and our education practices and our families and every other single aspect of our existence. In other words, biases are stuck in society’s system and, in turn, get stuck in all of our brains—particularly in our amygdalae. The amygdala doesn’t mean to be hateful. It learns to hate from a hateful society.

john a. powell, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley has extensively studied the research on implicit bias. He says the nonconscious “makes associations based on frequency.” So, for instance, because the news overreport black crime, at an nonconscious level we’ll create a neural linkage between crime and black—whether or not we even personally, consciously believe blacks are more or less likely to commit crime. Implicit biases are like projections of society’s biases etched into our unconscious. It happens to all of us. “It’s the air we breathe,” says powell. “You breathe that until you’re an adult, you’re going to have those associations. Whites will have them. Blacks will have them. Latinos will have them.”

New York University neuroscientist Elizabeth Phelps and her research team conducted a study in 2000 that identified the neural signature of negative stereotypes. The amygdala is activated more when subjects are shown photos of people with fearful facial expressions than when they are presented with photos of people with neutral expressions. This detection of danger, which in turn helps trigger fear, is one of the most well-established functions of the amygdala, and neuroscientists have long believed that greater amygdala activation is due to a greater perceived threat. Phelp’s research team hooked subjects up to an fMRI machine and then flashed random yearbook photos of white people and black people, all of whom had neutral facial expressions; none were fearful. The majority of white subjects showed greater amygdala activation when viewing unfamiliar black compared to familiar white faces. In other words, seeing unfamiliar black faces triggered fear. Phelps and her team then compared the same people’s amygdala activation to their scores on an implicit bias assessment, which they’d taken before the fMRI study. They found that the more implicit bias people had, the more their amygdala lit up.

This implicit associative test, developed by Dr. Anthony Greenwald, has been discussed in previous healthy memory blog posts. You can take this test yourself. Go to

A great deal of research has revealed the pernicious effects of implicit bias in people’s lives. As john a. powell along with a group of other researchers wrote in a comprehensive report that summarized this work, titled “The Science of Equality”, “studies have shown that bias is operating in our schools, our business offices, our medical institutions, and in our criminal justice system.” This research is too voluminous to review and do justice to in this blog post.

One can argue that explicit bias, bias which is intended, is worse than implicit bias. But what matters most is impact—which can be just as pernicious whether rooted in implicit bias or explicit hate. Undetected hate hiding in our brains is still hate. Ms. Kohn writes, “Just like a little cancer is still cancer. You don’t want even a smidgen inside you.”

Fortunately, there is increasing evidence that interventions work. Ms. Kohn calls this “connection-thinking”— the conscious effort to neutralize the stereotypes embedded in our amygdalae. This is generally called “debiasing” and it is getting promising results.

Susan Fiske conducted an experiment that tried a simple strategy to erase people’s bias. When Fiske showed pictures of unknown black faces to white participants, their amygdala activity predictably spiked. But when Fiske instructed the research subjects to guess the favorite vegetable of the people in the pictures, their amygdala activation remained the same, whether they were shown pictures of white people or black people. So just thinking about what vegetable these unknown folks might enjoy, and having to engage in the process of trying to take the perspective of the other, was enough to break down bias.

Phelps and her team did another experiment in which they showed white subjects the faces of well-liked famous people, both white and black. This time their amygdala activation was significantly lower. In other words, just knowing people, just having more real-life exposure to “others” changes the way our brains activate in response. Ms. Kohn concludes, “That’s more great support for the importance of creating more connection-spaces that then help foster connection-thinking.”

Here’s another study that shows promising signs that if we will acknowledge that we have implicit bias, we can consciously train our minds to disregard it. Salma Handler and other neuroscientists at Tel Aviv University hooked subjects up to a fancy computer that allowed them to monitor their fMRI results themselves, watching in real time as their amygdala activation rates were being tested. With a little bit of coaching and a lot of encouragement, when they were shown stimuli that were meant to trigger their fear mechanisms and at the same time were shown a screen where their amygdalae were lighting up, people could deliberately lower their amygdalae stimulation. Just getting that feedback helped people regulate their own unconscious mental processes.

According to Yudkin and Van Bavel, “Acknowledging the truth about ourselves—that we see and think about the world through the lens of group affiliations—is the first step to making things better.” Ms. Kohn concludes, “So the answer isn’t to ignore biases, as with arguments about “colorblindness” or attacks on identity politics, but rather to acknowledge them and keep working at consciously countering them. We’re not going to change our stereotyped thinking overnight, and we certainly won’t change it longterm simply because we imagine someone’s favorite vegetable. But with concerted effort over time, we can make great headway.”


Effortless Thinking: Why Stereotyping is an Evolutionary Trap

January 13, 2018

The title of this post is identical to the title of an article by Kate Douglas in the series of articles in the 16 December 2017 Issue of the New Scientist titled “EFFORTLESS THINKING: Why some ideas come naturally to us—and why they’re usually wrong.”
Ms. Douglas writes,”We are born to judge others by how they look: our brains are hardwired with a specific face-processing area.” Even shortly after birth, babies would rather look at a human face than anything else. In their first year, they become more discerning; they are more likely to crawl towards friendly looking faces than those who look a bit shifty. When we reach adulthood we are snap-judgement specialists who jump to conclusions about a person’s character and status after seeing their face for just a tenth of a second. Unfortunately, we shun considered assessments of others in favor of simple shortcuts. For example, we judge a baby-faced individual as more trustworthy, and associate a chiseled jaw with dominance.

Although all this is unfair, it does make good evolutionary sense. Our species is ultra-social, so being able to assess quickly whether someone is friend or foe and whether they have the power to help or hurt us is important survival information. Psychologist Alexander Todorov points out that there is a problem as more often than not our first impressions are wrong. He suggests that the reason is that poor feedback and the fact that we meet many more strangers than our prehistoric ancestor, both likely play a part.

Another problem is that we don’t just stereotype faces one at a time. We are just as quick to categorize groups of people, and then discriminate against them as a result. Research by Susan Fiske and her colleagues has shown that a group stereotypes are also based on levels or trustworthiness and status. They label them “warmth” and “competence.” The researchers have plotted these two categories on a two-by-two grid, each quarter of which is associated with a particular emotion: pity, disgust, pride, or envy.

In the top quadrant are what they term High status competitors. The examples they provide are Jews, rich people and professionals. These people tend to trigger feelings of envy.

In the bottom quadrant are what they term Low status non-competitors. The examples they provide are housewives, elderly people, and those who are disabled. These people tend to trigger feelings of pity.

In the left quadrant are what they term Low status competitors. The examples they provide are welfare recipients, homeless people and immigrants. These people trigger tend to feelings of disgust.

In the right quadrant are what they term High status non-competitors. The examples they provide are our in-group and close allies. These people tend to trigger feelings of pride.

So we tend to dehumanize groups we judge to be lacking in warmth, and react violently to those with high status. Fisk says, “Historically, many genocides have been directed towards groups that fall into the envy quadrant.” Even our relatively positive reactions have downsides: we may pity those of low status, but react by patronizing them, and the pride we feel towards our own group can spill over into nepotism.

Even if we consciously reject stereotypes, the culture we live in does not, and experiments suggest that we are likely to share its biases. Research has shown that even people who show no overt signs of racism can still subconsciously dehumanize black people. Go to

Ms. Douglas concludes with this advice: “The best way to escape this evolutionary trap is to really get to know people from outside your echo chamber. Working together on a joint project is ideal because relying on someone forces you to look beyond simplistic first impressions. And don’t trust social stereotypes—even your own national stereotype. The evidence suggest that we are not even accurate when it comes to judging ourselves.” HM puts extra emphasis on that last point.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Super-you: Use Your Better Instincts to Crush Your Inner Bigot

December 14, 2016

In the 10 Dec 2016 issue of the New Scientist there was a series of articles whose titles began super-you.  HM is reviewing a select sample of these pieces.  This instincts piece is written by Caroline Williams.  HM does not like this use of the word “instincts.”  “Predisposing biases” would have been a more fortunate choice.  However, this article accounts for much of the ugliness prevalent throughout the world.  The quick explanation is that these people are in their default mode of feeling and thinking.  But this is a very low level of thinking.  It is System 1 processing using Kahmeman’s terms.

The unpalatable truth is that we are biased, prejudiced and racist.   We put people into mental boxes marked “us” and them”.  Implicitly we like, respect and trust people who are similar to us and feel uncomfortable around everyone else.  This tendency towards in-group favoritism is so ingrained that we often don’t realize we are doing it.  “It is an evolutionary hangover affecting how the human brain responds to people it perceives as different.

A study from 2000 found that just showing participants brief flashes of faces of people of a different race was enough to activate the amygdala (Neuroreport 11(11):2351-5, September 2000 can be found at  HM readers should know that the amygdala is a key component of the brain’s fear circuitry.  But the amygdala doesn’t just control fear; it responds to many things and calls on other brain areas to pay attention.   Although we’re not automatically scared of people who are not like us, we are hardwired to flag them.  As Williams notes, “evolutionarily, that makes sense:  It paid to notice when someone from another tribe dropped by.”

When Susan Fiske of Princeton University scanned volunteers’ brains as they looked at pictures of homeless people, she found that the prefrontal cortex, which is activated when we think about other people, stayed quiet.  Apparently these volunteers seemed to process these homeless people as subhuman (Social cognitive ad affective neuroscience, 2007 Mar. 2(1) 45-51.)

Fiske says “The good news is that his hard-wired response can be overcome depending on context.”  In both the homeless study and a rerun of the amygdala study Fiske found that fear or indifference quickly disappeared when participants were asked questions about what kind of food the other person might enjoy,   Fiske continues, “As soon as you have a basis for dealing with a person as an individual, the effect is not there.”

What we put in “them” and “us” boxes is flexible.  Jay Van Bavel of New York University created in-groups including people from various races, participants still preferred people in their own group, regardless of race.  It seems that all you have to do to head off prejudice is to convince people that they are on the same team (Pers Soc Psychol Bull, December 2012, 38, 12, 2012  1566-1578.

It appears that we are instinctively cooperative when we don’t have time to think about it.  Psychologist David Rand of Yale University asked volunteers to play gambling games in which they could choose to be selfish, or corporate with other players or a slightly lower, but shared, payoff.  When pressed to make a decision people were much more likely to cooperate than when given time to mull it over.

Williams concludes her article thusly:  “So perhaps you’re not an asshole after all—If you know when to stop to think about it and when to go with your gut.  Maybe, just maybe, there is hope for the world.”

© Douglas Griffith and, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.