The neuroscience of prejudice and stereotyping

Journal name:
Nature Reviews Neuroscience
Year published:
Published online


Despite global increases in diversity, social prejudices continue to fuel intergroup conflict, disparities and discrimination. Moreover, as norms have become more egalitarian, prejudices seem to have 'gone underground', operating covertly and often unconsciously, such that they are difficult to detect and control. Neuroscientists have recently begun to probe the neural basis of prejudice and stereotyping in an effort to identify the processes through which these biases form, influence behaviour and are regulated. This research aims to elucidate basic mechanisms of the social brain while advancing our understanding of intergroup bias in social behaviour.

At a glance


  1. Prejudice network.
    Figure 1: Prejudice network.

    An interactive set of neural structures that underlie components of a prejudiced response. The amygdala is involved in the rapid processing of social category cues, including racial groups, in terms of potential threat or reward. Approach-related instrumental responses are mediated by the striatum. The insula supports visceral and subjective emotional responses towards social ingroups or outgroups. Affect-driven judgements of social outgroup members rely on the orbital frontal cortex (OFC) and may be characterized by reduced activity in the ventral medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), a region involved in empathy and mentalizing.

  2. The amygdala and its role in prejudice.
    Figure 2: The amygdala and its role in prejudice.

    Amygdala activity is frequently observed in individuals while they view members of racial outgroups, but it has also been found in response to viewing members of one's own group independently of race47. This mixed finding may reflect the different functions of nuclei within the amygdala. The figure depicts three amygdala nuclei that probably contribute to these two forms of prejudice: sensory inputs enter via the lateral nucleus of the amygdala (LA) and, depending on the context and nature of the stimuli, this signal is directed to the central nucleus of the amygdala (CeA), which supports a threat response, or to the basal nucleus of the amygdala (BA), which supports an instrumental response18. Because of the inhibitory nature of within-amygdala projections, activating signals involve connections through intercalated masses (ITCs). PAG, periaqueductal grey; PFC, prefrontal cortex; SNS, sympathetic nervous system.

  3. Neural representation of racial bias in affect-based and stereotype-based judgements.
    Figure 3: Neural representation of racial bias in affect-based and stereotype-based judgements.

    A multivoxel pattern analysis approach revealed a unique representation (that is, decoding accuracy) of race in the orbital frontal cortex when subjects judged images of black and white males according to an evaluative dimension (who is more likely to be a friend?), and a unique representation of race in the medial prefrontal cortex when judging black and white males on a stereotypical trait dimension (who is more interested in athletics?)49. Reprinted from Neuropsychologia, 50, Gilbert, S. J., Swencionis, J. K. & Amodio, D. M., Evaluative versus trait representation in intergroup social judgments: distinct roles of anterior temporal lobe and prefrontal cortex, 36003611, Copyright (2012), with permission from Elsevier.

  4. Stereotyping network.
    Figure 4: Stereotyping network.

    Neural structures that underlie components of intergroup stereotyping. Semantic information stored in the lateral temporal lobe — especially representations of stereotype-related knowledge about people and social groups in the anterior temporal lobe (ATL) — is recruited into the dorsal medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) to support the formation of impressions (that is, stereotypes) and, in conjunction, into the inferior frontal gyrus (IFG) to support goal-directed actions that are guided by these stereotypes.

  5. Regulation network.
    Figure 5: Regulation network.

    Neural structures supporting the regulation of intergroup responses. Conflicts between a biased tendency and either internal goals or external cues (for example, social norms) are processed in the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC) and rostral ACC (rACC), respectively. The medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) is involved in perspective taking and mentalizing, and activation in this region provides further representation of interpersonal cues to guide regulatory processing. Intergroup response goals are represented in the lateral PFC and implemented in behaviour in coordination with the striatum and motor cortex. dlPFC, dorsolateral PFC; IFG, inferior frontal gyrus.


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  1. New York University, Department of Psychology, 6 Washington Place, New York, New York 10003, USA.

    • David M. Amodio

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  • David M. Amodio

    David M. Amodio is an Associate Professor of Psychology and Neural Science at New York University (NYU), USA, where he directs the NYU Social Neuroscience Laboratory. He received his Ph.D. in psychology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, USA, specializing in social psychology and neuroscience, and completed postdoctoral training at the University of California, Los Angeles, USA. His research examines the roles of social cognition, emotion and self-regulation in intergroup social behaviour from an integrative neuroscience perspective. David M. Amodio's homepage.

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