How we can overcome racial prejudice
Is it possible to overcome racial prejudice? Neuroscientists may have found a hopeful solution. Here is the science behind it:
... being a part of a diverse group — connected by a bond that isn't race — may help our brains perceive everyone in that group as part of "your people," regardless of racial makeup. If we know an individual is part of our group, our brains seem to react to the individual as being part of our group first and foremost — not an "other."
These findings may have important policy implications, from considering the demographics of our police forces, as Attorney General Eric Holder recently suggested the Ferguson Police Department should, to the way schools admit students and how we plan our cities in general.
Its normal to form groups along racial, ethnic and religious lines. However these categories aren't special. We form our groups based on these distinctions simply because its convenient. So Lehigh University psychologist Dominic Packer and a team of researchers led by New York University social neuroscientist Jay Van Bavel, examined whether people of different races feel closer when put on the same team using neuroimaging tools to measure their response rates and also observe activity changes in different areas of their brains.
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One study showed a flare up in brain activity in the amygdala, (the 'emotional' part of the brain) when white participants saw photos of their team members,regardless of race. In short, the person in your group is what's important, not the race. A follow up study focused on facial recognition. In this case, people quickly remembered their group members.
...once we're part of a group, our brains tell us to think, act and feel like a member, regardless of the group's racial makeup. Essentially, spending time in other groups creates brain-based bonds that may make people more likely to see others as distinguishable individuals, as opposed to just part of a group. This is a critical component to eliminating racial prejudice because distinguishing individuals is the first step toward connecting with another human.
Van Bavel explains saying: "Responses to race that we think of as burned pretty deeply into the brain may be hard to override or regulate. But it seems that if we can see a member of another race as part of our in-group, then we can reorient how we see the world and interpret people, which may help overcome biases."
The above findings however contradict the psychological phenomenon called "own-race bias" which suggests people easily remember faces of people from their own race. This has had severe implications in some criminal justice cases where suspects were misidentified in police lineups hence false imprisonment.
In fact, as of a few years ago, around 40% of falsely convicted death-row inmates were victims of cross-race identification errors.
The above knowledge that brain-based bonds can be formed makes the situation hopeful; that creating minimal groups and teams can overcome racial bias; that focusing on something else can make people disregard racial differences within a group. And as Emile Bruneau, an MIT neuroscientist puts it: "[Van Bavel's research] shows how flexible the brain is, and that flexibility is something we can hang hope on."
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