Positive emotions may reduce racist perception

As tempting as it can be to dismiss the fanciful sounding ideas of “the power of a positive attitude”, every now and then a scientific study will show that positive emotions reach into unexpected corners of our brains to tweak our thoughts and actions in small yet significant ways. As one example, simply being joyful or amused may chip away at a cornerstone of racism.

Racism is, of course, a complex and nuanced psychological construct, with layers of cultural background, personal history and cognitive quirks. One of the cognitive building blocks deep at the foundation, though, is the “own-race bias”, sometimes also called the “cross-race identification bias”. Simply put, we are better at distinguishing between different people of our own race, and remembering individuals of our own race, than we are at distinguishing and remember people from other races. The relevant phrase (frequently quoted in research articles) is “they all look the same to me”, and it turns out to have at least a grain of truth in it.

There are two possible reasons for why this bias might exist. One is perceptual, and based on our experience. Faces are more complex than most other objects, and require special processing. To recognize an individual at a glance, we don’t just consider the shape of a nose or the set of the eyes, but how all the different parts relate to each other. This is done through a region of the brain called the fusiform gyrus.

And at this point in any lesson to students, it’s hard not to feel like a racist or bigot, as I must point out what feels like a true but very tension-loaded fact: different races tend to have different facial features and structures. The shape of the nose, the size of the lips, the angle of the eyes, perhaps even more subtle distinctions we don’t normally think about. And because the shapes and arrangement of our faces are different, our brains don’t process them in exactly the same way; what we learn about processing and identifying faces of one race might not apply to faces of another race.

Think of it like recognizing coins. Imagine holding a large handful of coins from around the world, tasked with separating them into piles by country of origins. As an American, fluent in American coins, I could easily pick out the American coins in a matter of seconds. Patterns like “e pluribus unum” and “in god we trust” would stand out and seem obvious. The rest of the coins, though, would be much harder to separate. A Euro cent and a British pence share a lot of common features, and while a European might never mix them up, I would have to study them for a moment to find the right marking to distinguish them.

The other explanation for the own-race bias is less perceptual and more cultural. Seeing a member of a different race, and thinking about them in terms of that race, might activate certain ideas and expectations – including stereotypical faces or caricatures that would interfere with processing and understanding the face in front of us. For our own race, we have such varied experience and ideas that there wouldn’t be any strong interference from expectations or one famous face.

While we don’t know yet whether our own race bias stems from a relatively innocent lack of perceptual experience with other races, or a slightly more sinister cultural conditioning, we do have the start of some ideas of how to stem the bias and perhaps the racist attitudes it contributes to. And it starts with a little comedy. Quite literally, comedy, as in five minutes of a stand-up comedian making jokes.

The basic task of this research study was having White volunteers studying 28 faces, Black and White, for half a second each. Later, they would look at 56 faces, and declare whether each was new or had been seen previously. The twist is that before studying the faces and before being tested on them, they watched some quick (5-minute) videos. Some watched stand up comedy, some watched an excerpt from a horror movie, and some watched the movie equivalent of white noise, clips of everyday objects. While people who watched the horror movie or the everyday objects showed the expected own-race bias, recognizing White faces more accurately than they recognized Black ones (one finding was not quite at the threshold for statistical significance, for the people who watched a horror clip before they studied the faces, but overall the pattern is compelling).

People who watched the comedy clip, on the other hand, did not show an own-race bias; they were equally accurate at recognizing the White and Black faces as being familiar. This was due entirely to an improvement in recognizing the Black faces. Everyone was equally accurate at recognizing the White faces regardless of what clips they watched, but the people who watched the comedian were much better at recognizing the black faces. Even more telling, the amount of bias people showed in their recognition of faces was linked to how much emotion they were experience. People who reported feeling more amused, happy, or joyous showed better recognition of Black faces, with moderately strong correlations (coefficients around .30).

The improved recognition of Black faces could work with either the perceptual or cultural explanations for the own race bias. Perceptually, the positive emotions could shift the way our brains work, to help the fusiform gyrus process the unusual faces better. We already know that positive and negative emotions are linked to different hemispheres of the brain; positive emotions would in theory increase activity in the left hemisphere of the brain, and this might conceivably spill over to other regions of the brain as well. Or, it could be that when we’re in a good mood we are less likely to focus on racial categories; we are less likely to think “that’s a Black person” and activate other black faces and stereotypes that would interfere with processing this particular face. The study contained some slightly support for this, because those who reported feeling more anxiety had slightly worse recognition of Black faces.

Either way, comedy and positive emotions might be a uniter. We don’t know if the benefits in reducing racial bias will extend beyond facial recognition, or how this will apply when Blacks, Hispanics or other minority races look at other races, but even this is a start. Unfortunately, happiness and joy are not emotions that are characteristic of interracial interactions in America; anxiety and fear seem to be more likely. So perhaps the greater question is, can we use this idea to cultivate more positive emotions when we are around people of other races, to help us recognize their individuality and, just maybe, reduce any other biased attitudes that would otherwise stem from that biased facial recognition?

Johnson, K. J., & Fredrickson, B. L. (2005). “We all look the same to me”: Positive emotions eliminate the own-race bias Psychological Science, 16 (11), 875-881.


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