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September 02, 2009

This Is Your Brain on Stereotypes

Catherine New
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Stereotypes and bias can affect judgment in the subtlest of ways. New brain imaging research shows just where these biases are experienced deep within grey matter.

“My colleagues and I were interested in determining how the brain responds when people are ‘put on the spot’ by decisions that could make them appear racially biased,” says Malia Mason, assistant professor of management who studies decision-making and the neuroscience of social perception. She will be co-hosting a symposium on diversity and leadership later this month at Columbia Business School.

Mason and her co-authors, Michael Norton, Joe Vandello, Andrew Biga and Rebecca Dyer, looked at how the brain helps people manage decisions that others might interpret as discriminatory. The researchers measured their white participants’ brain activity while they decided which of two individuals was more likely to have certain traits (e.g., gentle, intelligent, Canadian). On some trials participants were asked to decide between two white candidates, on other trials the particpants had to make a judgment involving a white and an African-American candidate.

“The results revealed that the brain’s alarm — the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), a cortical region that detects conflicts or uncertainties — is triggered when people have to choose between a black and a white candidate,” Mason says. “Importantly, this occurs regardless of the relevancy of the trait or characteristic in question. The sound of the ACC alarm was just as loud when people decided who was Canadian as when they decided who was intelligent.”

Having to choose between a black and white candidate was also associated with activity in brain regions that support concentration (the dorso-lateral prefrontal cortex or DLPFC) and flexible responding (the lateral orbital frontal cortex or LOFC). Like the brain’s alarm (the ACC), these regions were recruited even when participants’ decisions could not be taken as evidence that they harbored stereotypical beliefs. These findings suggest that the judgmental context itself — having to choose between a white and a black participant — sets off a cascade of events and signals the need to proceed with caution and care, to inhibit stereotypical beliefs, and to consider how a decisions will be interpreted by others, says Mason.

“The good news is that people appear to be sensitive to social injustices and highly motivated to seem egalitarian,” says Mason. “Unfortunately, these findings also suggest that egalitarian aspirations alone do not lead to social colorblindness. The challenge is to help people unlearn beliefs with a dubious basis. Our results suggest that brute inhibition of stereotypes is a lot of work for the brain.”

The Program on Social Intelligence and the Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. Center for Leadership and Ethics are hosting the research symposium “Inclusive Leadership, Stereotyping and the Brain” on September 18, 2009. Learn more about the symposium and register for the event here.

Images courtesy of Malia Mason