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Hiding Racial Bias Can Tax Brain

Encounter with 'different' people can drain mental skills, study suggests

WEDNESDAY, Nov. 26, 2003 (HealthDayNews) -- Harboring even a subtle bias toward people of another race can drain your mental function.

The bias being spoken of here, however, shouldn't be equated with outright prejudice. An initial encounter with anyone who is "different," be it a physical disability or a racial difference, can be tense, new research says.

"On the first meeting, it can be awkward. After a while it goes away, you let your guard down and engage more naturally," says study author Jennifer Richeson, an assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences at Dartmouth College.

The stress of interacting with a person of a different race in those awkward early encounters can also actually impair the brain's cognitive functioning, according to the study, which appears in a recent issue of Nature Neuroscience.

Richeson found white people who scored higher on a measure of very subtle racial bias had a harder time completing a cognitive task afterward, due to a phenomenon referred to as "resource depletion."

In other words, for some people interracial interactions can be taxing enough to have an effect on subsequent mental performance. In this study, bias scores actually predicted how people would do on the cognitive task.

Richeson, who is black, and a team of multi-racial colleagues, first looked at 15 white American undergraduates. The participants were led by a white researcher to a laboratory testing room. There, they completed a test designed to measure how easily and quickly they associated names more likely to be associated with blacks (e.g. Latisha) and white Americans (e.g. Amber) with positive and negative concepts.

"What it gets at is our tendency to associate black Americans with negativity to a greater extent than with positivity and the reverse," Richeson explains.

Next, the participants were taken to a different testing room where they interacted with a black researcher for five minutes.

Finally, the original white researcher took them back to the first room where they performed the test of cognitive performance.

After at least two weeks, all 15 participants underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), as part of an experiment that was supposedly unrelated to the initial experiment. Participants were shown color images of black and white young adults, all with a neutral expression, while the activity of various brain regions involved with cognitive ability was assessed.

A second experiment was identical to the first, except that the 15 participants interacted with a white researcher instead of a black researcher in the second room.

The people who scored higher on racial bias had more brain activity in response to the photographs of black males. The same individuals performed poorly on the cognitive tasks after interacting with a black researcher, but not after interacting with a white researcher.

"What we found in the behavioral work is that people who scored higher on subtle racial bias after interaction showed this impairment on the cognitive task," Richeson says.

"We were surprised by all the findings, every last one," she adds. "It was shock after shock."

Other experts find the results less startling.

"This reduction in working memory efficiency is interesting, but I see it as a relatively lesser impairment in our society for bigoted individuals than other factors, and I see it as a lesser problem for our society than the other consequences of bigotry," says Dr. Kimford Meador, professor and chair of the department of neurology at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

"It is interesting to consider the following," Meador adds. "Since a bigot has to employ extra working memory to cover up their socially inappropriate feelings, then in conditions of fatigue or drug influence, they may be more likely to let their guard down and reveal their true underlying feelings."

It's difficult not to take these findings too far, Richeson says. The people who scored higher on the "bias" scale may not be prejudiced in the conventional sense of the term. They may actually be working harder to overcome their awkwardness, which is not necessarily a bad thing. It could mean, however, that they are unfamiliar and therefore uncomfortable with members of other races.

"They're being more careful when talking to a black person. They're trying to make sure not to say the wrong thing," Richeson says. "Controlling behavior is not a bad thing. We're just saying there's some extra effort that people are putting into the interactions and it seems to be related to cognitive functioning."

Part of the problem is "we sort of stopped our conversation about prejudice in this country," Richeson says. "We know it's bad but we don't know how we should interact. Maybe we should think about diversity and interracial interaction in a more positive way. We are trying to understand the dynamics and hopefully make them more positive."

An indication of just how difficult it is for some Americans to talk about race, racial bias and interracial relations can be found in one response Richeson received to this study. It suggested she was developing a brain scan to measure people's prejudice levels. She says she has received some hate mail as a result of that misinterpretation.

More information

For more on race and racism, see the UNESCO Declaration on Race and Racial Prejudice and the European Commission Against Racism and Intolerance.

SOURCES: Jennifer Richeson, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences, Dartmouth College, Hanover, N.H.; Kimford Meador, M.D., professor and chair, department of neurology, Georgetown University, Washington, D.C.; Nov. 16, 2003, online edition, Nature Neuroscience
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