Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Can Neuroscience Data be Used to Minimize the Effects of Stereotype Threat?

Last December 2013, the neuroscience graduate students at Emory University spearheaded an effort alongside many other sponsors to organize and implement a symposium to explore the neuroscientific basis of race and gender bias. The program, entitled “Bias in the Academy: From Neural Networks to Social Networks,”  awarded the Laney Graduate School New Thinkers/New Leaders fund and support from CMBC and the Center for Ethics, aimed to provide students and faculty alike an overview of the psychological and neuroscientific research on race and gender bias and how this might be used to mitigate harmful effects of stereotype and bias in the academy. After listening to and participating in the symposium, I realized that the symposium speakers and student planners all hoped to answer a similar question regarding the nature of the brain: Is the brain “hard-wired” to categorize people into groups in a way that makes negative stereotyping inevitable or is the brain exquisitely plastic insofar as biases we hold toward groups can be altered via certain interventions? One individual cannot find the answer to this question; rather, multidisciplinary scholarship can work to bridge the gap between disciplines such as neuroscience and social psychological findings that begin to answer this question and real-world issues.

The speakers at the symposium explored various aspects of race and gender bias.  First, Dr. Liz Phelps, a Julius Silver Professor of Psychology and Neural Science at New York University, presented and explained her work on race bias in a talk entitled, “The Neuroscience of Race Bias.” In particular, Dr. Phelps’ work focuses on the cognitive neuroscience of emotion, learning, and memory. In her talk at our symposium, she delved deeply into her work regarding the acquisition, expression, and inhibition of race bias. She discussed the nature of the prepared learning effect in addition to the ways in which examining amygdala activation may help to understand why we develop certain predispositions to objects and people.

Second, Dr. Chad Forbes, a social neuroscientist at the University of Delaware, also sought to outline how the recipients of bias may feel or act when put in situations that may elicit feelings of inferiority in his talk entitled, “Gaining Insight from a Biased Brain: Implications for the Stigmatized.” Specifically, Forbes discussed his work in which he used EEG to detect stress in subjects who were thought to be a victim of stereotype threat. He presented findings from his work that focused on how negatively stereotyped targets’ attention, memory, and motivation may be different in stress-inducing contexts.

Finally, the symposium ended with Greg Walton’s, an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, talk entitled, “Wise Interventions: Engineering Psychology to Raise Achievement.”  He explored how simple social belonging interventions can significantly alter a student’s academic trajectory. He specifically discussed how many minority students tend to find that they feel particularly excluded during the transition to college from high school. For instance, an undergraduate minority student may feel ostracized when their roommate does not invite him or her to dinner or an advisor fails to respond to an email promptly. Some students may experience these negative events and automatically interpret them to mean that the student does not belong at the university. Ultimately, Walton proposes that specially crafted interventions that target these misguided cognitions may provide an important area of study when approaching ways in which colleges can help all students perform well academically.

The symposium concluded with several other events including a presentation by graduate students that synthesized the information presented by the speakers and a panel discussion moderated by the Director of the James Weldon Johnson Institute for the Study of Race and Difference, Tyrone Forman. By incorporating these interactive components into the symposium, the Emory graduate students hoped to put many of the psychological and neuroscientific findings presented by the speakers into an academic context and spur conversations regarding issues of gender and race bias at Emory.  Many of the questions asked by the audience focused on how we can take the information from the talks and apply the psychological findings at an institutional level to precipitate change. In an effort to further understand higher education, institutions can utilize neuroscience data to minimize the effects of stereotype threat in academic settings.

One of our speakers, Chad Forbes provided us with some additional insight on three ways he felt neuroscientific findings may inform strategies to mitigate bias:

1. Forbes suggests that neuroscience techniques may provide a novel lens for examining consequences of bias:

“Traditional approaches to understanding the deleterious consequences of stereotypes and prejudice in academic settings have relied primarily on self-report and behavioral measures like reaction time tasks. While there is no better way to examine individuals' meta-cognitive interpretations of their impressions of others or how they feel in a given situation, these approaches are inherently vulnerable to individuals' self-presentation concerns, self-enhancement biases and egalitarian-oriented motivations.  Indeed, if given time individuals can easily override or disguise initial reactions to outgroup members that otherwise have profound effects on perceptions and behavior. Advances in neuroscience methodologies and the data that has emerged from these investigations has engendered a scientific revolution that has allowed researchers to circumvent these issues in a multitude of ways.”

2. In addition Forbes suggests that neuroscience allows us to design experiments where in researchers can examine psychological phenomena as they happen real time. 

“Importantly, to the extent activity in different neural regions (either alone or in concert with other regions) engender specific psychological processes neuroscience methodologies provide a means to unobtrusively examine different psychological phenomenon on-line, while individuals interact with intergroup members, or interpret, receive or deliver information to ingroup and outgroup members. To this end it is possible to index responses that individuals are either not comfortable disclosing or are unaware of experiencing (e.g., an individual is unaware of the visceral, negative affective reaction they elicit in response to an outgroup compared to ingroup member).”

3. He also suggests that these methodologies allow for the design of new interventions.

“Furthermore, neuroscience methodologies, particularly EEG, also affords the possibility to examine the time (on the order of milliseconds) with which different psychological processes unfold. Armed with this information, social neuroscientists can design strategies that are more effective at mitigating bias experienced and elicited in academic settings. These strategies could conceivably identify optimal approaches, such as whether a cognitive or affective based message might be more effective and whether strategies should address basic psychological phenomenon like learned associative processing or more meta-cognitive approaches that target higher level cognitive processes. In short, neuroscientific data can only broaden and enrich our understanding of both the effects of bias and stereotypes on individuals' perceptions and behaviors and optimal means to eradicate these effects."

I agree with Dr. Forbes and see the value in these approaches. I also do not think that neuroscience holds all the answers to resolving complex societal problems.  I, along with all the symposium planners and speakers, do think that neuroscience brings something unique to the discussion. The work of Dr. Forbes and Dr. Phelps reinforces the notion that the brain is equipped with the anatomy to enact and feel bias. Their work and the work of Dr. Walton also suggest that the brain is equipped to learn to adapt to change these biases. Dr. Forbes' work also reinforces the idea that neuroscience data may be useful in learning just how and when we might implement behavioral interventions.

The symposium represented a first step toward understanding the biological basis of bias, the brain of the stigmatized, and the potential interventions that exist to mitigate bias. It is our hope that we can continue to explore the neuroscience of bias, the benefits of diversity, and the action steps we can take as an institution to resolve our pressing diversity issue in the coming years.

Want to cite this post?

Marshall, J. (2014). Can Neuroscience Data be Used to Minimize the Effects of Stereotype Threat? The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from

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