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.

The scientists measured fear responses in the study participants through changes in their sweat glands, which indicated their emotional state.

"The fear response … all depends on whether you're black or white," Banaji said. "If you're white, the fear response falls away more quickly to white faces than black. If you're black, it falls away more quickly to black faces than white."

Because the preference for one's own group was observed in both white and black participants, the results suggest that the fear response is not just about cultural learning.

"We know this is not something that could just be a stereotypical association of fear with African Americans, because each group shows the extinction [of fear] to its own group," Phelps, the NYU psychologist, said.

Evolution and Culture

So where does this fear of others come from? The researchers say evolution may be partly to blame.

"Millennia ago, when groups stayed segregated by tribes and clans, the association of difference with something bad or fear-provoking may have been reasonable or served a purpose," Banaji, the Harvard psychologist, said.

Humans may have developed a predisposition to associate people of a different social group with a negative outcome.

The fear has nothing to do with race per se, the researchers say, but only points to our fears of other social groups.

However, what we learn from our own group also influences our perceptions of other groups.

"There's no simple message, like it's all coming from the past, or it's all from learning," Banaji said.

"If we just say, All we need is to love each other, that would be a very naive story," she added. "If we assume that we are who we are because of what happened millions of years ago, that would not be accurate or optimistic either."

But the researchers do see a lesson in the fact that participants who had been in romantic relationships with a member of the other racial group shed their fears more easily.

In other words, spending time with people from another group can diminish the fear of others.

Arne Öhman, a professor of psychology at Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, Sweden, wrote an article accompanying the study in Science. He says the study's findings are more relevant today than ever.

"The function of fear is to promote avoidance of potentially dangerous stimuli, and what you avoid you will not learn about," Öhman said. "Because you isolate yourself from corrective information, you may think that members [of other groups] are dangerous and evil in order to justify your fear, and in this way fear may breed interracial antagonism.

"We can see this mechanism at work in London today, where the fear produced by terrorists identifying themselves as Muslims is rapidly spreading to [a fear of] the majority of Muslims who strongly oppose fundamentalism," Öhman concluded. "Knowing … the role of fear in promoting intergroup antagonism should make for restraint in what goes into tabloid headlines."

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