Blacks, Whites Have Same Fear Reaction When Seeing a Black Face

African Americans and Caucasians viewing African American faces display extremely similar changes in the activity of brain structures that respond to emotional events, a new UCLA study finds.

The changes occur in the amygdala, a region of the brain that serves as an “alarm” to activate a cascade of other biological systems to protect the body in times of danger, said Matthew D. Lieberman, assistant professor of psychology at UCLA and lead author of the study.

The findings will be published May 8 in the online version of Nature Neuroscience, and later in the print version.

Five out of eight African Americans (63 percent) responded with significantly more amygdala activity when presented with expressionless photographs of African Americans than when they were shown expressionless photographs of Caucasians, Lieberman and his colleagues found. Seven of 11 Caucasians (64 percent) in the study also responded with greater activity in the amygdala when viewing the African American photographs.

Although a third of participants in each race did not show this effect, no participant in the study responded with greater amygdala activity to the Caucasian photographs than to the African American photographs, Lieberman said.

“We didn’t see any differences in amygdala activity between the racial groups,” Lieberman said. “From looking at the amygdala, you couldn’t tell if the scans were from African American or Caucasian participants.

“Many people of either race may not be happy to find out that a part of their brain involved in responding to potential threats responds more to African Americans than Caucasians,” Lieberman said. “Even people who believe to their core that they do not have prejudices may still have negative associations that are not conscious.”

Why do African Americans have this amygdala response?

“One theory,” Lieberman said, “is that people are likely to pick up the stereotypes prevalent in a society regardless of whether their family or community agrees with those stereotypes. Several social psychologists have found evidence for this view. From an early age, cultural views, media portrayals and even the body language of authority figures may train our brains, whether we consciously agree or not.”

Previous research has shown that Caucasians show an increased amygdala response to African American photos to the extent that they hold nonconscious negative attitudes towards African Americans, Lieberman said.

Co-authors on the study are Johanna Jarcho, a UCLA graduate student in Lieberman’s laboratory; UCLA graduate student Naomi Eisenberger; Susan Bookheimer, professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine; and Ahmad Hariri, assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and a former UCLA graduate student.

The researchers also studied whether adding a verbal label (such as “African American”) when viewing African American photos changes the amygdala response, and found it does.

“When people look at an African American and think of the word ‘African American,’ we no longer see the amygdala response,” Lieberman said. Instead, the researchers found changes in a second region of the brain: the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex. This region of the brain is located behind the forehead and eyes, and has been associated with thinking in words about emotional experiences; it also is associated with inhibiting behavior, impulses and emotions.

“This region is especially active when you add the verbal label to the face,” Lieberman said. “The people who show the most activity in the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex show the least activity in the amygdala.

“We found that when the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex gets turned on, the amygdala does not,” he added. “When you engage in verbal labeling, that partially turns off or disrupts the amygdala response. The right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex was significantly active only when people were looking at African Americans and choosing the word ‘African American.'”

These results suggest that “thinking about the race of others in words may regulate some of the threat experienced when confronting unfamiliar or feared others,” Lieberman said. “It is possible this emotional ‘benefit’ of using race-related words may have inadvertently contributed to the widespread use of race-related words and stereotypes.”

Lieberman and his colleagues used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to examine brain activity for this study, conducted at UCLA’s Ahmanson-Lovelace Brain Mapping Center.

The research was supported by the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Mental Health.


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28 thoughts on “Blacks, Whites Have Same Fear Reaction When Seeing a Black Face”

  1. All this study does is validate a theory i have had since being being incacerated and forced to live in the presence of negros. its an instictual based hatred/fear of being so different. it will never stop or change. With that being said lets kick off the new year with a race war. i wanna kill me some coons!

    This is absolutely not anonymous its Garret A, Lengyel!!!!!!

  2. I googles this subject cuz I wanted too see if other people felt as I did. I work with hundreads of customers a day..It just so happens that I don’t look forward to helping a black or woman because no matter how polite I am..I am morel likely to get cursed at and being thretened to get “beat up in the parking lot” because I have follow rules to do my job. Today, I was treated very rudely by a black woman who I offered extra effort within 5 minutes of my offer..which she of course accepted..rudely -being cursed at for n apparent reason..tell my y I should help the next black person??

  3. People you must understand segregation ended like, i don’t know 100 years ago why worry about blacks. Hell, im black sometimes when i see a group of blacks in a group with baggy pants and gold teeth i get scared because (i think of them as goons) im tiny and skinny but at the same time white people can be in baggy clothes and i have the same thought as blacks. I have white people in my generation so i don’t have a choice to be racist (i don’t believe in that mess). But i also think that we are all humans and like white and all other cultures we are all the same but we look different on the outside. White people could be crinimals, or hispanics or asians. WE R ALL HUMAN!!! STOP WITH THE HATE PLZ AND THX!!!

  4. This is absolutely false and you know it. Keep believing this kind of information and you’ll be the one who pays the price. Folks, you got to take the time to educate yourself. We are taught in this country to just take what we’re spoon fed without questioning the sources. The result, mind control.

  5. i read all the comments and i see everyone has their view but i couldnt just move on without saying what i really feel. as a young black man in university taking astronomy, in honest truth i am scared of a young black man who dresses as a thug but if a black man dresses modestly then i’m not scared so its tottally understandable for another race to be scared .but everyrace has a fault and i think when people only blame one race its bias. for exmaple i grew up watching lots of chinese movires cos of the karate and later in life i was scared of asian people cos i thoihgt they’ll beat the hell out of me . maybe when people get to know a person the start feeling the same way. well not all blakcs are bad or asians or whites bad but i personally think the blacks need to talk to their children and ask them to dress properly and go to school and make the world a better place regardless of the past no ones past is perfect we’ve all been through it .race doesnt matter especially for black and white i’ve seen a white man get burned and his skin turnss black with scars and i’ve seen blacks with vitiligo and other diseases turn white so skin colour doesnt matter but a persons heart. anyone is dangerous anyone that dresses and acts suspicious you must be scared of them dont be fooled.well i hope all other blakc men prove people wrong by going to school ,forget the gangstar life and threat and wanting to prove their more thuggish or powerful. real power comes from going to school and being a better person to contribute to society. i am scared of w white man who dresses black or asian or hispanic who dresses black and gangstar rap not really the skin of a person

  6. One day, there is going to be an end to the money wasted on race-based research, and the world will simply agree that the best course of action is to exterminate the Blacks.

    I am convinced that’s where this is all heading— we can no longer support religiously-based assertions of Black inferiority and justification for Black dehumanization, but if Science were to say it, then it becomes irrefutably so.

    So, can we just get on with it? Because maybe if we do, Blacks will finally pull themselves together and build a strong nation somewhere in the world, where they needn’t spend every breathing second proving their humanity and defending their right to life. If the world would just admit it despises Blacks, for whatever reasons, then maybe Blacks would stop trying to find a place in a place that doesn’t want their kind.

    I see a bright future for Blacks, but it involves giving up the lost war of racial equity, and building a strong, self-contained nation.

  7. Human nature. Of course Blacks are more prone to commit violent crimes, check American history. Do we really think that bringing blacks over here against their will wasn’t going to have any negative repercussions? Yeah I know the “race card” isn’t politically correct anymore because its the truth, just like black crime statistics. When you rape, murder, rob, assault, and enslave a people, the first chance they get they’re gonna return the favor, except when blacks do it, they’re sent to prison for their crimes. You’re probably saying to yourselves “Why do people always bring up the hundreds of years of slavery and the legal discrimination that followed slavery? Get over it already!” Sure, as soon as you read the Willie Lynch letter. I think its a testament to black people in America that despite the crime statistics blacks are as peaceful and decsent as they are!

  8. I think the result is a little bias , I will agree with the result if they were also conduct in place like Africa
    On crimes, don’t forget about child molesters and kidnapping. Italian Mobs commited lots of crimes as well. Nazi killing of Jews is crime.
    On Other note, a lots of black men are in Jail for crime that whites might not put in Jail for e.g drugs white kids use more drug than black. Blacks use weed but rest of the drugs are used by whites. I love all people white, yellow, purple. I believe that God created everyone black or white for a reason, and I believe we need each other.

  9. black people are cool they always have our backs for some stuff. they are humans i am hispainc and they are just as me but with a little bit more color in us. I see how some white and hispanics want to be black and dress with the clothes black people wear.
    they are just like us god made them and people need to stop and get over it racial wont make you happy. I noe there is blacks that killls and they love White people kill but they dont say much about them because they are white hispaincs do the same and they make a big deal about us too why not abouut whites? because some white people think yall are perfect a black person can be so dum but inless they got a heart!! a black person can be smarter than any race they just give up cuz whites dont think they can do it bt i noe they can everybody can just people burst thier bubble. My dad has a towing company and guess what whites beg him to let them work for my dad and we live in this country they have everything while us hispanics come with nothing and make more money then a white would do i am not racist but i hate how people treat blacks !!! white girls and boys get tans to be the color hispanics have so i dont think they shouuld be talking!!!

  10. If a person gets bit by a dog, that person may become apprehensive towards dogs. If a person is a survivor of a plane crash, that person will probably never get on a plane again.

    People respond to black male faces with fear because we’re evolutionarily designed to recognize danger the same way mice know to run when they see a cat. Will ALL cats eat mice? Probably not. But a lot of cats will. ANd so while ALL black males aren’t criminals, most ppl respond with fear because statistically, black males commit more crimes.

    Anyone who says otherwise is lying to themselves or simply lying to others. When asked, I’d say blacks are just people. But when PRESSED, even I’d admit that when I see a group of black people, I get somewhat nervous.

  11. here’s some stats:
    Race, Crime and Justice in America
    The Color
    New Century Foundation
    Oakton, VA 22124

    Second, Expanded Edition
    Major Findings
    • Police and the justice system are not biased against minorities.
    Crime Rates
    • Blacks are seven times more likely than people of other races to commit murder,
    and eight times more likely to commit robbery.
    • When blacks commit crimes of violence, they are nearly three times more likely
    than non-blacks to use a gun, and more than twice as likely to use a knife.
    • Hispanics commit violent crimes at roughly three times the white rate, and
    Asians commit violent crimes at about one quarter the white rate.
    • The single best indicator of violent crime levels in an area is the percentage of
    the population that is black and Hispanic.
    Interracial Crime
    • Of the nearly 770,000 violent interracial crimes committed every year involving
    blacks and whites, blacks commit 85 percent and whites commit 15 percent.
    • Blacks commit more violent crime against whites than against blacks. Fortyfive
    percent of their victims are white, 43 percent are black, and 10 percent are
    Hispanic. When whites commit violent crime, only three percent of their victims are
    • Blacks are an estimated 39 times more likely to commit a violent crime against
    a white than vice versa, and 136 times more likely to commit robbery.
    • Blacks are 2.25 times more likely to commit officially-designated hate crimes
    against whites than vice versa.
    • Only 10 percent of youth gang members are white.
    • Hispanics are 19 times more likely than whites to be members of youth gangs.
    Blacks are 15 times more likely, and Asians are nine times more likely.
    • Between 1980 and 2003 the US incarceration rate more than tripled, from 139
    to 482 per 100,000, and the number of prisoners increased from 320,000 to 1.39
    • Blacks are seven times more likely to be in prison than whites. Hispanics are
    three times more likely.


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