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Brain activity reflects complexity of responses to other-race faces

"These results suggest that automatic and controlled evaluative processes may be more connected than previously thought. These processes may not be isolated or fully separate - they may interact in more dynamic ways during evaluations of our social environment," says lead author William A. Cunningham, assistant professor of psychology at Toronto. "Even for non-prejudiced individuals, early perceptual processing may result in an automatic emotional response that may direct attention toward people of stigmatized social groups. Yet, with the opportunity to change or modify this initial impulse, they have the ability to do so."

The researchers found that the difference in amygdala response to black and white faces was greater among individuals displaying higher degrees of racial bias on a test that assesses the extent to which individuals are faster in a task associating black with bad and white with good compared to black with good and white with bad. However, all of the participants expressed disagreement with prejudiced statements and a personal interest in egalitarian behavior. Consistent with these conscious beliefs, in the fMRI phase of the study, when faces were viewed for longer periods of time, areas of the brain's frontal cortex that are involved in inhibition and control took over and amygdala activity displayed less bias.

Co-author Marcia K. Johnson, Charles C. and Dorathea S. Dilley Professor of Psychology at Yale, noted that the researchers also found that greater amygdala response to black than white faces was associated with less activity to black than white faces in the fusiform gyrus, a brain area associated with face processing. Thus, lack of "expertise" about other-race faces may trigger an early emotional response that can be modulated by more conscious processing.

The current work builds upon a tool for assessing bias developed in 1998 by Banaji and Anthony Greenwald of the University of Washington, which is now a
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Contact: Steve Bradt
steve_bradt@harvard.edu
617-496-8070
Harvard University
8-Dec-2004


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