2003-11-17 Lakeshore Press Study finds racism can make you stupid

Study finds racism can make you stupid
Lakeshore Press

To the litany of arguments against prejudice, scientists are now adding a new one: Racism breeds stupidity. That is the message of an unusual and striking new series of experiments conducted at Dartmouth College, with the help of brain-imaging equipment and a crew of undergraduate volunteers.

According to the findings, the more biased people are, the more their brain power is taxed by contact with someone of another race, as they struggle not to say or do anything offensive. The effect is so strong, the team found, that even a five-minute conversation with a black person left some of the white subjects unable to perform well on a test.

“Just having a prejudice makes you stupider,” said John Gabrieli, a professor of psychology at Stanford University who was not involved in the research. “It is really interesting.”

Researchers cannot yet predict how racial bias as measured in the lab will translate into overt racist attitudes or actions. But the new brain-imaging work, reported in the journal Nature Neuroscience, represents the most detailed look yet at the way racial biases function in the brain.

The work also paints a dispiriting portrait of the state of the nation’s race relations, the lead researcher said, even among the well-educated, well-meaning Dartmouth undergraduates whom the scientists studied.

“I think people are getting caught in this trap where they are trying not to do the wrong thing, rather than trying to act natural,” said Jennifer Richeson, an assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences at Dartmouth College.

The report is the first time researchers have shown a connection between racial bias and the parts of the brain responsible for higher functions, according to several neuroscientists who were not involved in the research.

It is part of a nascent movement to study the neurological basis of social phenomena, in particular racism.