Are we hardwired to be racist?

Real human brain
A human brain on exhibit in Bristol, England, on March 8, 2011.
Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Our brains — "survival machines," as neuroscientist David Amodio calls them — evolved very early to make quick judgments on whether or not something is a threat.

"The basic machinery for gut reactions and snap judgments was present in the brains of our distant ancestors, and the same structures are still found in our brains today, primarily in the human subcortex," wrote Amodio in his article, "The Egalitarian Brain." "These relatively simple mechanisms for detecting us vs. them — and for automatically treating 'them' as a threat — are quite helpful for species living in basic societies that do not require cooperation with outside groups."

Does this mean bias is hardwired into our brains, even though our society has changed? No, according to Amodio. The brain is flexible and can learn to ignore its biased impulses.

"While studies have shown that people are generally unable to deliberately turn down the intensity of a feeling or a stereotypic thought, people are quite effective at responding to those thoughts or feelings in a way that blocks the actual expression of bias," wrote Amodio.

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"The brain cannot be anti-racist, per se, because it never stops spotting differences and sorting people into categories. But it is pro-goal — and if the goal is to make judgments without regard to race, the brain can do that, though it may take a bit of effort and practice."

Amodio and Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, psychologist and co-editor of "Are We Born Racist?: New Insights from Neuroscience and Positive Psychology," join The Daily Circuit to discuss the science of bias.


The Egalitarian Brain
David Amodio looks at the latest neuroscience on prejudice.

The Top 10 Strategies for Reducing Prejudice
Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton gives research-based tips for overcoming biases.

Measure your implicit race evaluations
Project Implicit was founded by researchers at Harvard, the University of Washington and the University of Virginia "interested in implicit social cognition — thoughts and feelings outside of conscious awareness and control."