New Study Suggests Race Fear Isn’t Hard Wired

If you’ve ever walked down a dark alley and seen a stranger approach, then you probably know that automatic vigilance — a signal from your brain making you more alert. And even if you consider yourself unprejudiced, you may have also noticed that this response is more prevalent when you encounter people of races other than yours. It can be chalked up partly as caution around the unknown — the fact that we are generally less familiar with other races than we are with our own — but it is still discouraging for race relations. Some new research, however, has shown that we may have more control over our race-based vigilance reaction than previously thought.

Princeton University researchers Mary Wheeler and Susan Fiske suggest that our automatic vigilance happens mainly when we put people into categories, and is not inevitable. “We react that way to harmless strangers of another race — unless we trouble to think of them as unique individuals,” Fiske said.

Their findings are presented in the study “Controlling Racial Prejudice: Social-Cognitive Goals Affect Amygdala and Stereotype Activation,” in the January 2005 issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the American Psychological Society.

The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure activity in the amygdala – the part of the brain triggering the rapid vigilance – while a group of White participants viewed pictures of unfamiliar Black faces and White faces. While viewing each picture, participants were asked to perform three alternative tasks: to decide if the person pictured would like a certain vegetable (celery, for example), to decide if there was a gray dot on the photo, or to decide whether the face fit into the over-21 or under-21 age category.

Results showed amygdala activation only in the last case, when White participants were asked to categorize the age of Black faces. Wheeler and Fiske argue the lack of activation after the first two tasks is due to participants not considering the racial characteristics of the person pictured. For instance, someone’s preference for celery is a personal characteristic, not a racial one.

Fiske said amygdala and stereotype activation only happened when “thinking about the faces categorically and superficially” – as when making a determination of a person’s age. By placing the person pictured into an age group, participants were categorizing them. We often categorize unfamiliar people, whether as young or old, black or white, rich or poor. And it is when we categorize that our brain’s alarm signals kick in.

“We think this way about strangers on a bus. But the amygdala and stereotype response depends on exactly how you think about your seat-mate on the bus,” Fiske said.

For more information, contact Susan Fiske at [email protected]. A full copy of the article is available at the APS Media Center at

Psychological Science is ranked among the top 10 general psychology journals for impact by the Institute for Scientific Information. The American Psychological Society represents psychologists advocating science-based research in the public’s interest.

From American Psychological Society

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