Some findings and some assorted thoughts -- from 2003 to 2013

John Ray (M.A.; Ph.D.)

This report (from November, 2003) -- that racism can be detected by measuring brain activity -- is obviously sensationalized in that it refers to "white" racism only. Presumably black racism could be detected in a similar way. But I guess we are not supposed to mention black racism.

But it nonetheless does fit in well with the point I often make that there is much evidence to show that racism of some sort is universal and natural. So if people are asked to suppress it -- which political correctness forces them to do -- some harm will result. And exactly that is what is reported: Suppressing banned thoughts is difficult and requires a lot of brain activity which could be better devoted to other tasks. And that people who have stronger convictions about the reality and importance of racial differences are the ones who find suppression of such views hardest is equally no surprise.

The thing that will disturb most people, however, is that something as private as one's thoughts can now be detected by a scientific machine. Suppressed thoughts about ANY subject would seem to be detectable by such a procedure. Orwell's "Big Brother" has arrived and the old anti-Nazi slogan Die Gedanken sind frei (Thoughts are free) is no longer true! Note however that a Leftist who is trying to suppress (say) his contemptuous thoughts about ordinary people could be similarly caught out. As soon as that realization dawns, I am sure the procedure will be BANNED!

I might point out in passing, however, that what the procedure does is not much different from what a traditional lie-detector test does. It just reports an upsurge in neural activity but detects it in a slightly different way. What are the actual thoughts behind that neural activity is, however, essentially a guess and there are ways of spooking the procedure.


One of my "PC Watch" readers sent in this link that gives details of one of the people behind the above "white racism in the brain" study. My reader comments: "I never would have guessed!"


New Scientist has a fuller report of the study about "white racism" being detected by brain scans. Note this comment about how "racism" was measured: "The Implicit Association Test (IAT) is controversial. Gehring says "one must be cautious" regarding any claims that a test is a direct measure of racist attitudes."

And this comment on what the brain scan shows: "The team does not know exactly why this brain area should light up in people with biases. "They are either trying to inhibit or control something - but we don't know what that something is," she says. "It could be an emotional reaction, or thoughts that come to mind. Or it could be something as benign as simply trying not to make errors.""

In short, they had no good evidence at any point that they were measuring what they said they were measuring.

There are also some further dismissive comments at the end of the New Scientist article.


There are two articles here and here published in 2005 that summarize some further research by Indian psychologist Mazharin Banaji with the Implicit Associations Test (IAT) -- articles which again imply that the IAT is a "covert" measure of racism. The common finding reported from use of the test is that all sorts of people are quicker to pair "good" words with whites and "bad" words with blacks. The most surprising thing about the test is that many people who are conspicuously anti-racist show the same quickness to associate good with white.

Finding "covert" measures of anything -- and racism in particular -- has long been a "holy grail" for psychologists and there have been some conspicuous failures in the quest. So is the IAT the holy grail? Sadly, No. The first thing a psychometrician asks about any test of anything is: Is it valid? -- meaning, does it measure what it purports to measure? But there is another question logically prior to that: What does it purport to measure? And the answer in this case seems to be straightforward: It purports to ascertain whether a person has prejudiced, negative or antagonistic attitudes towards various minorities. That being so, the test is obviously NOT valid. It is not valid on what psychologists call a "criterion groups" examination. And it is precisely the feature of interest in the IAT that lots of people who are by any criterion either non-racist or actively anti-racist get high scores on racism according to the test. So the IAT does NOT pick out non-racist or anti-racist people accurately.

So does the test measure anything? Anybody who is familiar with the stereotyping literature will find one easy answer to that. There have now been many decades of research into stereotyping and the findings about it are roughly the opposite of what is popularly believed. There are two literature surveys here and here which document that. The important point for our present purposes is that stereotypes have long been found to have a "kernel of truth", as Allport put it. Far from being rigid or fixed, they are highly responsive to modification through fresh information. They are our first and most immediate response to any new situation -- but to be useful, they also have to be continually modified as information about the situation comes in -- and they are.

So what the IAT findings appear to show is that the experience white people have of blacks is generally negative. Whites know from experience or observation that blacks in general are (for instance) more dangerous to them. Given the enormously disproportionate incidence of violent crime among blacks, it would be a sad day indeed if no-one had noticed that. So what the IAT measures is EXPECTATIONS of blacks, not ATTITUDES to blacks. It shows what we see as most probable about blacks but tells us nothing about any more complex attitudes we may have towards blacks. So the IAT simply records our experience of reality without telling us anything about how we interpret that reality.

That view of the IAT also explains why even many blacks associate badness with blacks. Blacks are of course the most frequent victims of black crime (for instance). Since it is very common for whites to shun blacks in various ways (no eye contact etc.) however, many blacks will still have most positive associations with their own kind. And the IAT shows that too.

There is an academic review article here (PDF) which also fairly effectively undermines the claims of the IAT as a measure of racially biased attitudes. It appeared together with the original "brain scan" study but does not seem to have diminished the enthusiasm of IAT devotees for their test. A similar disregard for criticism has also of course characterized use of the old Adorno "F" measure of "covert" racism. See here. Psychologists are very good at believing what they want to believe and damn the evidence!

As Charles S. Taber and Milton Lodge (2006) report:

Physicists do it (Glanz, 2000). Psychologists do it (Kruglanski & Webster, 1996). Even political scientists do it (cites withheld to protect the guilty among us). Research findings confirming a hypothesis are accepted more or less at face value, but when confronted with contrary evidence, we become "motivated skeptics" (Kunda, 1990), mulling over possible reasons for the "failure", picking apart possible flaws in the study, recoding variables, and only when all the counter arguing fails do we rethink our beliefs

And sometimes NOTHING will force a rethink.

2013 update:

The academic article summarized below (journal abstract also given) is one of a series going back a long way which purport to measure "unconscious" racist attitudes. The tests concerned (such as the IAT) do actually fool some people, as people who are vigorously ANTI-racist do sometimes score high on them -- indicating that they are secretly racist. Such results do however call the validity of the test into question. Does the test measure what it purports to measure?

There are various alternative possibilities for what the IAT measures but it seems most parsimonious to say that those who are not fooled by the test are actually showing that race is more SALIENT to them rather than that they secretly hold racist attitudes. And race might be salient for a number or reasons -- ranging from your being mugged last night to you being involved in civil liberty campaigns. So the conclusions below are probably mistaken

The findings below do fit well with an explanation in terms of minority salience and could even be held as confirmation of the salience hypothesis -- JR

Brain scans could soon be used to detect whether or not people are racist, scientists say.

Researchers found that brain scans were able to pick up on differences in the way that people with implicit negative racial attitudes viewed black and white faces.

Racial stereotypes have previously been shown to have subtle and unintended consequences on how we treat members of different race groups.

But the new research published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, shows race biases also increase differences in the brain's representations of faces.

Psychologists Tobias Brosch of the University of Geneva in Switzerland and Eyal Bar-David and Elizabeth Phelps of New York University examined activity in the brain while participants looked at pictures of White and Black faces.

Afterwards, participants performed a task that assessed their unconscious or implicit expression of race attitudes.

By examining patterns of brain activity in the fusiform face area a brain area involved in face perception the researchers were able to predict the race of the person that the participant was viewing, but only for those participants with stronger, negative implicit race attitudes.

This, the researchers said, implies that people with stronger, negative implicit race attitudes may actually perceive black and white faces to look more different than others who held no such prejudice.

The scientists claimed that perception of race is shaped by prejudices that we already hold - and that racism runs deeper than we think.

Dr Brosch said that 'these results suggest it may be possible to predict differences in implicit race bias at the individual level using brain data.'

However, Dr Phelps said further work would be needed before the technique could reliably detect whether people really were racists. 'Although these findings may be of interest given the behavioural and societal implications of race bias, our ability to predict race bias based on brain data is relatively modest at this time,' she said.

The new study further deepens the scientific understanding of the processes in the brain that lie behind the racist attitudes that some people hold.

Previous research by Dr Phelps has claimed that racism could be 'hard wired' into the brain, since the neural circuits which allow people to recognise ethnic groups overlap with others that drive emotional decisions.

Because of that, the researchers claimed, it's possible that even people who believe themselves to be egalitarian could harbour racist attitudes without knowing.

The findings published last summer in the journal Nature Neuroscience could lead to fresh ways of thinking about unintended race-based attitudes and decisions.

Dr Phelps and colleagues reviewed previous brain scanning studies showing how social categories of race are processed, evaluated and incorporated in decision-making.

They showed a network of brain regions called the the amygdala, dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex are important in the unintentional, implicit expression of racial attitudes.

The researchers said the brain areas themselves - as well as the functional connectivity among them - are critical for this processing.

Implicit Race Bias Decreases the Similarity of Neural Representations of Black and White Faces

Tobias Brosch et al.


Implicit race bias has been shown to affect decisions and behaviors. It may also change perceptual experience by increasing perceived differences between social groups. We investigated how this phenomenon may be expressed at the neural level by testing whether the distributed blood-oxygenation-level-dependent (BOLD) patterns representing Black and White faces are more dissimilar in participants with higher implicit race bias. We used multivoxel pattern analysis to predict the race of faces participants were viewing. We successfully predicted the race of the faces on the basis of BOLD activation patterns in early occipital visual cortex, occipital face area, and fusiform face area (FFA). Whereas BOLD activation patterns in early visual regions, likely reflecting different perceptual features, allowed successful prediction for all participants, successful prediction on the basis of BOLD activation patterns in FFA, a high-level face-processing region, was restricted to participants with high pro-White bias. These findings suggest that stronger implicit pro-White bias decreases the similarity of neural representations of Black and White faces.

Review article for the literature concerned here.

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