The neuroscience of race – is racism inbuilt?

The topic of race is one of fierce debate; never far from our minds and commonly discussed both in the media and down the pub. Britain is one of the most diverse and multicultural countries on the planet but the development of this multiculturalism has grown from a torrid past and race relations continue to dominate the national psyche. The ever-growing diversity of our country means that race relations are becoming more and more crucial to many socio-political advances. Indeed a number of intergroup interactions come to the forefront every year, with prominent events from this year including the allegations of racial abuse against former England football captain John Terry. Understanding what defines our prejudices and creates these racial tensions is an aspect of race relations which does not receive widespread media coverage, despite its potentially major implications for society – so what is currently known about the neuroscience of race?

Most of the early work on race relations came from the field of social psychology. Henri Tajfel and John Turner were early pioneers of ‘social identity theory’ – a theory which explores people beliefs and prejudices based on their membership and status within different social groups. Their work at the University of Bristol (UK) in the 1970s described the phenomena of ingroups and outgroups. They assigned volunteers to one of two groups based on relatively superficial preferences, i.e. individuals may have been assigned to a certain group due to their appreciation of a certain style of art. Individuals within these groups were then asked to rate their preference for other volunteers either within their own group (ingroup) or in another group (outgroup). Tajfel and Turner consistently found a prejudice towards the outgroup individuals and a preference for ones ingroup. This research suggests that we have an innate mechanism of preference towards those who we perceive to be similar to ourselves over those who are ‘different’ – no matter how insignificant or trivial that difference may be.

Interestingly this inbuilt prejudice can be masked, as is often the case in similar studies using different racial groups. However, recent neuroscience research suggests that prejudices may still exist despite the conscious effort to hide them.

Research by Elizabeth Phelps and colleagues at New York University (US) believe they have uncovered one of the brain pathway involved in determining reactions to faces of different race. This research provides some intriguing insights into our views of different racial groups. Using fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging), Phelps and her team have discovered a network of interconnected brain regions that are more active in the brain of white participants in response to a picture of a black face than to a white face.

This circuit includes the fusiform gyrus, amygdala, ACC (anterior cingulated cortex) and the DLPFC (dorsolateral prefrontal cortex). Activity in the fusiform gyrus is not surprising, since this region has been linked to processing of colour information and facial recognition. Intuitively, this region should play a simple role in the initial recognition of a black face. The next region in this circuit is the amygdala. The amygdala is responsible for processing/regulation of emotion and it is here where the circuit becomes more intriguing. A simple explanation of amygdala involvement could be that black faces evoke more emotion in white participants than white faces. Further along the circuit the roles become more complex as we move into the higher areas of the brain. The ACC and the DLPFC are regions that have both been linked to higher order processes. The ACC is commonly reported to be active in tasks that involve conflict. This region is commonly activated in tests such as the ‘stroop test’: this involves naming the font colour of written words which either agree (BLUE) or disagree (BLUE). In this case, the ACC is active during the second conflicting task. The DLPFC is one of the most sophisticated areas of the human brain, responsible for social judgement and other such complex mental processes.

A study conducted by Mahzarin Banaji and a team from Yale and Harvard Universities in the USA may explain why activity is seen in areas involved in conflict resolution and social judgement when viewing ‘outgroup’ faces. This research showed that activation of these pathways was time dependent. When images of ‘outgroup’ faces were flashed for a very short time (30 milliseconds) significant activation was seen in the fusiform gyrus and amygdala but none was observed in the ACC or DLPFC. However, when these images were shown for a longer period of time (525 milliseconds) activity in the amygdala was virtually abolished, replaced by strong activity in the ACC and DLPFC. This research yields vital insight into the role of the ACC and DLPFC and the possible presence of inbuilt prejudice. One interpretation of these findings is that after a short presentation, the ‘raw’ inbuilt activity is strong, showing unintentional emotive activity to ‘outgroup’ faces, while after the longer exposure time this activity is abolished by the influence of the ACC and the DLPFC, which provide a more rational regulation of this response.

This suggests that a member of today’s society knows consciously that racial prejudice is wrong and so activity in the DLPFC could represent a conscious decision to be unbiased. The ACC activity may represent conflict between this conscious DLPFC process and the subconscious emotion seen in the amygdala activity. Obviously, a mere increase in amygdala activity does not necessarily signify negative emotion. Therefore this automatic activity may not represent inbuilt racism, instead it may simply reflect heightened awareness and deeper thought when assessing faces from another racial group. However, one thing it does highlight is the obvious differences in the processing of ‘outgroup’ faces.

This research could have serious implications for our understanding of inter-race relations. Therefore, although this activity is subconscious and unlikely to be linked with conscious racial discrimination, it may still play a key role in influencing how we go about our daily lives – choosing jobs, places to live, friends and so on. However, since our brains are malleable, racial prejudice such as this can be lessened, a prime example being through inter-racial friendships and marriages. It is possible that this ingroup vs. outgroup association of race will diminish more and more as our education and upbringing continues to become more multicultural. But for now, easing these racial divides may take a lot of thought.

Guest Blog by: Oliver Freeman @ojfreeman

References (only accessible with subscription):

  • Kubota et al. The Neuroscience of Race. Nature Neuroscience
  • Cunningham et al. Separable Neural Components in the Processing of Black and White Faces. Psychological Science

Learn a little more about Oliver:

My research looks into the effects of diabetes on the nervous system. Diabetes is nearly 4 times as common as all types of cancer combined and around half of those with diabetes have nerve damage. Most people are not aware of this very common condition and I am trying to increase awareness of the disorder and understand what causes diabetic patients to feel increased pain and numbness/tingling in their hands/feet.

11 thoughts on “The neuroscience of race – is racism inbuilt?”

  1. All of this commentary rests upon a lack of empirical understanding of the brain. Just point to MRI imagery lighting up doesn’t give any sort of material explanation of meaning to supposed content. You can’t claim someone thinks something by such records. In fact there is little consensus as yet about the meaning of neuroscience. I.e. what is a representation? What is an intention? What is qualia? Hence claiming there is ‘racism’ rests entirely upon external frameworks of meaning posited without real direct ‘measurement’. Very strong scientific arguments have been made there is no other race in humans, and the only argument is about skin color not a biological race as such. Hence why is an innate ‘race’ programmed into the brain?

  2. Some argue that prejudice based upon race, or gender or sexuality is based upon cultural values imposed upon people, whether deliberately or not. Implicit Association Tests (IATs) are used by researchers at Harvard to measure reaction times to determine whether people associate, for example, good words (joy, love, success) and white faces, and bad words (terrible, pain, failure) with black faces, or vice versa. The reaction times are so short that differences are practically imperceptible to the participant.
    The results in the States have been rather interesting. The author Malcolm Gladwell (author of Blink) reported that the researchers had found that 80% of white Americans that had taken the test associated good words with white faces significantly faster than with black faces. Around 42% of the black participants also showed a ‘preference’ for white faces.
    There are strong opinions for and against the IAT, but the result is difficult to fake and, in general, a person’s ‘score’ remains fairly consistent even after training. In Gladwell’s book, people were known to train themselves every day to bias favourably towards black faces by watching black athletes win competitive races, or by reading about Martin Luther King. Hence there may be some chance of reducing implicit racial prejudice just by altering cultural influences.

    You can take the test here:

  3. Race difference /racism study physically is not going to help to amalgamate all the races into one homogeneous. But the spirituality only can be used to solve this. But man is selfish and he has compartmentalized in number of groups and evolved in their compartments. Here should come great personality to bring in unity. However again the great people who came on to this earth though preached the followers have taken their preaching to further compartments.
    soul is similar in all the individuals has to be made to understand.
    I don’t see any utility of research in this area.

  4. Thanks all for your comments.

    Doyle, I first must agree with you that we should treat fMRI studies with caution and accept their limitations. Activation in an area of the brain does not prove meaning of course, however to disregard fMRI studies entirely is inadvisable I think. The skill here is to design the correct task for the participants to do in order to piece out different activation patterns related to your function of interest. The appropriate control scenarios need to be put in place to be able to restrict activity to those areas of interest. It is by no means a fail-safe method but one which has provided vital research into how we view the function of the brain. One particular example of this is guiding the rehabilitation of a patient who has recently suffered a stroke to highlight which skills may need training to recover function.

    FMRI must not be taken as gospel truth but combined with other behavioural measures. If you are more convinced with the psychological side of things I urge you to look into the implicit association tests that Tasha is describing. I myself am sceptical of these but they do provide a ‘direct measurement’ (as you put it) of reactions to faces of different colour.

    As for your argument of ‘race’ vs ‘skin colour’ I believe that is one of semantics, not of science per se. Man evolved in a tribal world whereby one group’s existence could be threatened by that of another and so it is feasible to believe that such a wariness of ‘others’ was a positive survival trait. This trait obviously does not have its place in the same way nowadays but the continued presence of this behaviour could maybe be manifested in reactions to those of different skin colour (or however you wish to describe race).

    Hrr, I believe the utility of such research comes if an inbuilt outgroup discrimination is generally accepted through further research. Then we can move forward and ease this discrimination through education for example, instead of pretending it does not exist and doing nothing. An example was given by Tasha describing how people could train themselves to be less xenophobic (based on the implicit association tests), perhaps similar tasks can be eased into the school curriculum to ease these racial divides for future generations. A far-fetched plan maybe but yours is not an argument to drop this research entirely.


  5. How do the contents of the article relate back to the title – that racial prejudice is “inbuilt”? Considering developmental data was not mentioned in the article, it’s more than a bit of a stretch to say that racism is “built in”.. Or is “inbuilt” supposed to mean “unconscious”? It doesn’t seem to me that an unconscious process need be innate.

  6. Thanks for your reply Kate.

    I think here there is an important difference between the terms ‘inbuilt’ and ‘innate’ – at least in the way that I meant it. ‘Innate’ means existing in one from birth, scientifically meaning passed down in one’s genes from one’s parents. This is different to ‘inbuilt’ which suggests a notion of it being naturally present in someone, but does not specify how this came to be. I am not suggesting that this apparent prejudice is specifically innate or learned, that is another discussion entirely, one which I have not attempted to address in the article.

    This is an uneasy debate of what word to use when communicating what appears in these studies – please see for example. I do not feel there is a perfect word to describe this phenomenon succinctly and I hope the use of ‘inbuilt’ was not misleading.


  7. While this is interesting and insightful, I’d love to see the experiment be expanded to answer the following two questions:

    1. How do Black, Asian, and other participants react to the same faces as the White participants, and how did their reactions differ?

    2. To what intensity does the brain react to race under complex racial context is changed. (e.g. interracial couple/friends vs. mono-racial couple/friends are shown horseplaying, biracial/multiracial face is shown, etc.)

    p.s. I’m certainly not a professional on this… I’m just curious.

  8. How about freuds oedipal complex as it relates to a different race as an enemy to be fought and other socially taboed feelings which get expressed in hateful feelings introjected toward the self in self loathing as a result of inhibiting upbringing and then procected towards the black or

  9. I am considering developing an innovation which feeds off current research in the neuroscience of racism. I have found your posted research material quite useful.

    I am particularly interested in the ACC and Amygdala regions of the brain and what useful monitoring can be extracted from those regions of the human brain.

    Have you got further insight or credible research material available please? I would appreciate your assistance.

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