Race Affects How We Learn to Fear Others, Study Says

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
July 28, 2005

People have more difficulty getting over fear toward members of other races than toward those of their own race, a new study shows.

In the study, blacks and whites were shown images of both black and white men and given a mildly uncomfortable electric shock.

The participants were later shown the same images, this time without the shock. Researchers found that the participants dropped the fear they associated with people of their own race but continued to show fear of members of the other race.

The results suggest that how we learn fear is influenced by what social group we belong to.

"We'll more readily associate somebody of a group that's not our own with something negative, and that fear isn't changed by new information as readily as [it is] with somebody in our own social group," said Liz Phelps, a professor of psychology and neural science at New York University and a co-author of the study.

Phelps and colleagues say that the persistence of fear toward members of another race is a product of both evolutionary factors and cultural learning.

The study also showed that people with interracial dating experience let go more readily of their fears of someone of another race than people who had not had such experiences.

"This, to me, is quite stunning," said Mahzarin Banaji, a professor of psychology at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "It suggests that the one or two romantic experiences one has had with another group are successful in modulating this otherwise strong negative reaction."

Phelps and Banaji are co-authors of the study, which appears in tomorrow's issue of the journal Science.

Extinction of Fear

Prior research has shown that humans have a harder time getting over fears of snakes and spiders than fears of, say, birds and butterflies.

To see if this kind of fear-learning extends to social groups, the researchers showed young black and white Americans living in New York City images of black and white men.

Continued on Next Page >>


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