April 27, 2010

Human brain recognizes race

From the public release:
Typically, when people observe others perform a simple task, their motor cortex region fires similarly to when they are performing the task themselves. However, the UofT research team, led by PhD student Jennifer Gutsell and Assistant Professor Dr. Michael Inzlicht, found that participants' motor cortex was significantly less likely to fire when they watched the visible minority men perform the simple task. In some cases when participants watched the non-white men performing the task, their brains actually registered as little activity as when they watched a blank screen.
From the paper:
A deficit in the spontaneous ‘‘catching” of outgroup members’ actions and intentions can have serious consequences for intergroup interactions. Perception–action-coupling, and the sharing of somatic, autonomic, and emotional states, facilitate social understanding and foster helping, morality, altruism, and justice
(Batson et al., 1997; Cialdini, Brown, Lewis, Luce, & Neuberg, 1997). Thus, people might not be as responsive to outgroup member’s needs and feelings and be less likely to understand their intentions; they might also be less likely to help and effectively communicate with them.
This sounds like a good example of what I called friction in a recent post.

Also from the paper:
When we breakdown the omnibus outgroup correlation into the specific racial outgroups, we find results that are consistent with a Canadian context: the correlation was strongest for South-Asians, r (28) = .56, p less than .01, and followed by Blacks, r (28) = .36, p = .05; the correlation for East Asians, however, fell below traditional levels of significance, r (28) = .30, p = .11. Since mu activity is inversely related to motor cortex activity, these findings suggest that the more participants are prejudiced, the less their motor cortex fires in response to the passive viewing of outgroup members’ actions—an effect that is magnified for disliked outgroups (South-Asians, then Blacks, followed by East Asians).
The order of the outgroups suggests that genetic-phenotypic similarity is not the end-all, as South Asians are closer to whites but perhaps less familiar to them, due to a shorter period of their presence in Western societies.

Journal of Experimental Social Psychology doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2010.03.011

Empathy constrained: Prejudice predicts reduced mental simulation of actions during observation of outgroups

Jennifer N. Gutsell, and Michael Inzlicht


Perception–action-coupling refers to the vicarious activation of the neural system for action during perception of action, and is considered important for forms of interpersonal sensitivity, including empathy. We hypothesize that perception–action-coupling is limited to the ingroup: neural motor networks will fire upon the perception of action, but only when the object–person belongs to the ingroup; if the object–person belongs to an outgroup these motor neurons will not fire. Using electroencephalographic oscillations as an index of perception–action-coupling, we found exactly this: participants displayed activity over motor cortex when acting and when observing ingroups act, but not when observing outgroups – an effect magnified by prejudice and for disliked groups (South-Asians, then Blacks, followed by East Asians). These findings provide evidence from brain activity for yet another detrimental aspect of prejudice: a spontaneous and implicit simulation of others’ action states may be limited to close others and, without active effort, may not be available for outgroups.



AWood said...

Interesting. While the results of the study are interesting I am not surprised that this heavily biased study has taken place in my very own "communist Canada", especially at UoT. Maybe white people (esp. us men) will be committing thought crimes soon and will be a guilty of racism at every term (the race card is pulled several times a day in the news as it is). It would be nice to see "visible minorities" in metropolises like Toronto studied through the same procedure and see how they feel about the white folk.

AWood said...

term = turn

Maju said...

Brain and brain. Or the difference between essential, hard-wired, brain and cultural, plastic, brain.

The title and tone of the article would seem to indicate the first concept, i.e. humans are hard-wired to recognize race (or more exactly: 'ignore' different races) but the small letter says clearly otherwise.

The fact that South Asians, the ones closest in genotype and phenotype to people of recent European ancestry, are the more ignored clearly indicates a cultural imprint, not any hard-wiring.

In Europe it's likely that people of "Arab" or "Muslim" appearance would be the most ignored, along with Roma (but not true South Asians, which are a rather rare sight and arise no negative feelings in most countries).

In the end what this paper says is that ethnic prejudices make us ignore those we have prejudices against. Nothing else.

Marnie said...

"It would be nice to see "visible minorities" in metropolises like Toronto studied through the same procedure and see how they feel about the white folk."

Agreed. Actually, I think it would be interesting to see how significant racial groups feel about others, not just whites vs everybody else. That white vs everybody else is a very Canadian view of racial tension, I think.

Aaron, speaking as a fellow Canadian, I'm laughing at you a little bit as you try to pull the "I'm a poor white male" persecution complex thing. I know how tempting it can be. Go eat a falafel or listen to some Bob Marley and be appreciative of the fact that you don't live in a plastic bubble.

I wish someone would do a study on racial adaption. Maybe the timescales are too long to make it a practical study.

I can remember as a child where you would never, *never* see an asian-white or black-white couple. It's now common to see the former, and not unusual to see the later.

What's interesting to me is that we seem to have adapted, somewhat, to this idea.

Average Joe said...

The order of the outgroups suggests that genetic-phenotypic similarity is not the end-all, as South Asians are closer to whites but perhaps less familiar to them, due to a shorter period of their presence in Western societies.

Not necessarily. Remember that many blacks in the Americas have some European ancestry. It would be interesting to know if the blacks used in the research had pure African ancestry or were of the admixed types found in the Americas.

Marnie said...

Average Joe,

Rereading the abstract of this paper, I realize that it must be a snapshot of racial tension in Canada.

Yes, the authors should distinguish what they mean by Blacks, South-Asians and East Asians.

"Blacks" in Canada are generally from the Caribbean. Others are from the US, or Africa. But the overall mix is quite different from the US.

"South-Asians" is kind of vague.

What the paper is likely picking up is that Caribbean blacks in Canada, usually middle class, probably experience less racism compared to perhaps poorer "South-Asians."

That's interestingly a complete flip from California, where "blacks" are poor, and South-Asians are pretty well off, even compared to "whites" in some regions.

Again, it's unfortunate that the papers (this one, and the one about Hurricane Katrina victims) don't control for socioeconomic status. To do that, you'd have to run Toronto against the Bay Area, or something like that, where you get a socioeconomic variation in the minority groups discussed.

Marnie said...

The results in this paper, if they are sampled from the Canadian population, are influenced as much by the perceived concept of race, as by the genetic one. Again, economics play a major role.

I'd guess that by South Asians, the authors mean Indian and Filipino.

Here's the "official" breakdown from http://www.toronto.ca/toronto_facts/diversity.htm

The top five visible minority groups in Toronto are:

South Asian at 298,372 or 12.0 per cent of our population;
Chinese at 283,075 or 11.4 per cent;
Black at 208,555 or 8.4 per cent;
Filipino at 102,555 or 4.1 per cent;
Latin American at 64,860 or 2.6 per cent.

Top five mother tongue languages:

Chinese (420,000);
Italian (195,000);
Punjabi (138,000);
Tagalog/Pilipino (114,000);
Portuguese (113,000).

Here's an interesting study:

"Changing Colours: Spatial Assimilation and
New Racial Minority Immigrants"


Marnie said...

Again, speaking as a Canadian, and somewho who has lived in TO, the only city in Canada to have a sizeable black population, I'd say the results of this study are influenced by:

The socioeconomic status of minority groups,

The willingness, or not, of minority groups to learn English,

The willingness, or not, of minority groups to integrate, spatially and culturally.

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

Maju is on point. Any distinction that can appear on a census form or in a survey or on a printed page exists somewhere in a large percentage of human brains who use those categories socially.

In the same way, people watching sports matches miarculously recognize the difference between the home team and the away team when they are wearing uniforms at statistically significant levels. In fact, the audience's testosterone levels measurably differ following a home team win, as opposed to an away team win.

The fact that mental phenomena can be traced to a physical basis (one can, for example, now identify the particular neuron charged with memories about Marilyn Monroe or Barack Obama in a particular individual) doesn't make them any more fundamental than other cultural distinctions. Humans are not entirely creatures of instinct and one of the more notable discoveries of archeology is how much more flexible modern humans are at acquiring behavior via lifetime learning relative to our predecessors who had a very static material culture compratively.

Average Joe said...

Another factor may be that many South Asians are actually darker than many blacks in the Americas. It would be interesting to know if the brain is responding to skin color or to facial features.

Marnie said...

Average Joe,

Neither Filipinos nor Indians from the Punjab have a particularly dark skin color.

The other factors that I've noted above, at least in aggregate, probably account for these results.

princenuadha said...

why wouldn't Aaron be resentful of constantly being blamed of holding someone down. If you want racial harmony you be honest about racism. most race studies are hugely misleading as the tend to focus on whites.

Also why do you add the term male. Do you seriously think that men are privileged over you? Men have worse health, education, and reproductive rights/ bias in family courts. Those are the most fundamental rights in a first world country (good health, education, and family). It seems that you have subtly played the victim card while laughing at him. You reserving your victimhood would explain why you don't care if whites are still called oppressors; because you think you have your own claim.

princenuadha said...

As for the racial adaptation thing and its rate, I have not heard very much about that. It is a good point to bring up and should be talked about. I'm curious how different cultures adapt and why. Some stay distinct and some don't. Some become successful and some don't. when you start talking about the necessary time scale to study it you must remember that we are already mixing the races and I don't know how that will evolve.

on a side note why do I always fail when I first put in the code?

Marnie said...

"why wouldn't Aaron be resentful of constantly being blamed of holding someone down."

Aaron's comment:
"place in my very own "communist Canada", especially at UoT."

Neither Canada nor the University of Toronto are communist. Canada happens to have a conservative, pro-business government at the moment.

"Maybe white people (esp. us men) will be committing thought crimes soon and will be a guilty of racism at every term (the race card is pulled several times a day in the news as it is)"

It is Aaron who played the white male thing, not I. I'm quite sure his comments where in jest, but I decided to call him on it.

"If you want racial harmony you be honest about racism. most race studies are hugely misleading as the tend to focus on whites."

Yes, exactly the reason for my comments above.

"Also why do you add the term male."

Again, Aaron did that all by himself.

"Do you seriously think that men are privileged over you?"

Sorry, prince whoeveryouare. I'm not getting drawn into what is bound to be a very predictable and leading discussion.

It bores me.

princenuadha said...

if you agree with my racial harmony sentence then you must see the validity to Aaron's complaining about the current form of political correctness.

I asked why you added the term male... you made your own response, please take ownership. you interpreted his post and mocked the white male complaint and I want to know why you chose to add male and laugh at the idea.

when a person tries to insult you; princewhoeveryouare, bores me... and then acts like they would have control of the discussion you know their lying.

as far as the gender issue is concerned I could go on a lot further but that can open the door for back and forth banter. I only chose the most essential aspects of living in a first world county. they are basic rights and an ends in an of themselves and thus a very good measure. most other rights help you to attain those basic ones.

you make a snide comment then act superior. it seems to fit well with the idea of you mocking Aaron's complaints because you are enlightened enough to not play your greater victim card.

Marnie said...

Dear Prince Nuadha,

It is clear that you would like to discuss gender issues. It is also clear to me that you are trying to use me as a mirror to discuss these issues.

I may agree with you on some of the issues you raise; however, it is certainly not in the cultural tradition of my family for men to be defensive about a study on race.

Rather, my father and grandfather embraced whatever opportunity came their way, adored women, had wonderful mothers, and did not complain about some of the injustices they were expected to endure.

They loved life and took advantage of living it to the maximum extent possible, regardless of having to endure many difficulties.

They also tried to embrace the legacy of Robbie Burns "A Man's a Man for A' That."

That's the English Canadian worldview, up until the middle of the 20th century, anyway.

So Aaron's words of making a clearly unfounded claim about Canada's political state or about the degree to which he is suffering don't ring true to me.

My father (and grandfather), would have laughed.