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The neuroscience of prejudice and stereotyping

Key Points

  • Prejudice is a fundamental component of human social behaviour that represents the complex interplay between neural processes and situational factors. Hence, the domain of intergroup bias, which encompasses prejudice, stereotyping and the self-regulatory processes they often elicit, offers an especially rich context for studying neural processes as they function to guide complex social behaviour.

  • The sociocognitive processes involved in prejudice, stereotyping and the regulation of intergroup responses engage different sets of neural structures that seem to comprise separate functional networks.

  • Prejudice is an evaluation of, or an emotional response towards, a social group based on preconceptions. Prejudiced responses range from the rapid detection of threat or coalition and subjective visceral responses to deliberate evaluations and dehumanization — processes that are supported most directly by the amygdala, orbital frontal cortex, insula, striatum and medial prefrontal cortex.

  • Stereotypes represent the cognitive component of intergroup bias — the conceptual attributes associated with a particular social group. Stereotyping involves the encoding of group-based concepts and their influence on impression formation, social goals and behaviour. These processes are primarily underpinned by the anterior temporal lobes and the medial and dorsolateral prefrontal cortices.

  • Expressions of prejudice and stereotyping are often regulated on the basis of personal beliefs and social norms. This regulatory process involves neural structures that are typically recruited for cognitive control, such as the dorsal anterior cingulate and lateral prefrontal cortices, as well as structures supporting mentalizing and perspective taking, such as the rostral anterior cingulate and medial prefrontal cortices.

  • Situated at the interface of the natural and social sciences, the neuroscience of prejudice offers a unique context for understanding complex social behaviour and an opportunity to apply neuroscientific advances to pressing social issues.

Abstract

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.

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Figure 1: Prejudice network.
Figure 2: The amygdala and its role in prejudice.
Figure 3: Neural representation of racial bias in affect-based and stereotype-based judgements.
Figure 4: Stereotyping network.
Figure 5: Regulation network.

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Acknowledgements

Work on this article was supported by a National Science Foundation grant (BCS 0847350). The author thanks members of the NYU Social Neuroscience Laboratory, J. Freeman, K. Ratner and the three anonymous reviewers for their helpful feedback on earlier versions of this article.

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Glossary

Social motivations

Motives that operate in social contexts and satisfy basic, often universal, goals and aspirations, such as to affiliate (for example, form relationships and communities) or to achieve dominance (for example, within a social hierarchy).

Stereotypes

Conceptual attributes associated with a group and its members (often through over-generalization), which may refer to trait or circumstantial characteristics.

Prejudices

Evaluations of or affective responses towards a social group and its members based on preconceptions.

Self-regulation

The process of responding in an intentional manner, often involving the inhibition or overriding of an alternative response tendency.

Configural face encoding

The visual encoding of a face in terms of its basic structural characteristics (for example, the eyes, nose, mouth and the relative distances between these elements). Configural encoding may be contrasted with featural encoding, which refers to the encoding of feature characteristics that make an individual's face unique.

Instrumental responses

Actions performed to achieve a desired outcome (that is, goal-directed responses).

Implicit bias

Prejudiced or stereotype-based perceptions or responses that operate without conscious awareness.

Deliberative judgements

Judgements that result from thoughtful considerations (often involving cognitive control) as opposed to rapid, gut-level, 'snap' judgements.

Event-related potential

(ERP). An electrical signal produced by summated postsynaptic potentials of cortical neurons in response to a discrete event, such as a stimulus or a response in an experimental task. Typically recorded from the scalp in humans, ERPs can be measured with extremely high temporal resolution and can be used to track rapid, real-time changes in neural activity.

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Amodio, D. The neuroscience of prejudice and stereotyping. Nat Rev Neurosci 15, 670–682 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn3800

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