Racial Stigma Can Change Your Brain

racial stigma

The recent deaths of unarmed individuals like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and Tony McDade have made headlines over the last few weeks, and spurned national outrage with protests throughout major U.S. cities. They’ve also led to a dialogue on systemic racism in the United States, with growing support for the protesters.

“What we’re seeing today is a close examination of the hardships and indignities that people have faced for a very long time because of their race and ethnicity,” says Dr. Kyle Ratner, who works as an assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences at UC Santa Barbara. One of Ratner’s research interests has been the nature of intergroup bias which allows systemic racism to thrive, and how biological processes play a part in the way we harbor and experience biases.

“It is clear that people who belong to historically marginalized groups in the United States contend with burdensome stressors on top of the everyday stressors that members of nondisadvantaged groups experience,” says Ratner. While these individuals typically experience direct racism firsthand — being called offensive slurs, they also have to deal with seeing negative portrayals of who they are peppered throughout the media and popular culture, even ones that are decades old, and there is inevitably the systemic discrimination that leaves them at a disadvantage when it comes to education, work, even their own healthcare and housing, as well as the legal system. Ratner came to suspect that being bombarded with a negative, preconceived notion of who you are inevitably leaves a negative impact on your cognitive function.

For their study, Ratner and his researchers looked at negative rhetoric directed at Latinx individuals, something that is unfortunately all too common, to see what effect it had on the brain’s processing ability. Their effort recruited two groups of Mexican-American students: one who reported a high degree of exposure to bigoted stereotypes, and one that reported a moderate to low degree of exposure.

Their paper, published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, found that the students who reported high levels of exposure anticipated rewards and punishments in a different way than those with less exposure. Ratner’s team isn’t the first group of researchers to explore this topic, but most of the existing literature deals with how the experience of discrimination leads to anger and affects your thought process, but this effort took it a step further, suspecting that hearing an attack on one’s own ethnic group would be likely to have a negative psychological impact as well, particularly if it’s an attack they’ve had to deal with their whole lives or seen the people closest to them deal with.

In the past, Ratner has worked with patients suffering from depression and is particularly acquainted with a disorder known as anhedonia, in which the individual has a muted response to positive reinforcement and rewards. “If you’re not sensitive to the rewarding things in life, you’re basically left being sensitive to all the frustrating things in life, without that positive buffer,” he says, “And that’s one route to depression.”

Ratner wanted to see if exposure to constant negative stereotypes being seen as collectively lazy, for example, would impact how an individual would respond to being given a small reward like winning money. In their study, Ratner and his team of researchers looked at the brain’s nucleus accumbens, a subcortical region that anticipates what a potential reward might be like and motivates us to act in a way to win that reward.

The 40 college students involved in the study were shown several short video clips and then invited to play a game where they were given the chance to earn small amounts of money as a reward.

The group reporting high exposure was shown news clips that highlighted social issues for young people throughout the United States — childhood obesity, teen pregnancy, gang violence, and school dropout rates, but which pointed to the Latinx community as being particularly vulnerable to these issues. The control group was shown videos on similar topics but did not isolate any ethnic groups in particular.

The participants were then given a “monetary incentive delay” task — pushing a button whenever they saw a star on the screen. How fast they decided to push the button impacted whether they would win or lose money.

The test subjects who were shown stigmatizing video clips produced a different response when they waited for the star to appear — with the nucleus accumbens altering their responses to winning and losing money. This group also reported lower levels of arousal before they played the game, suggesting that they felt less motivated to accomplish the task. It’s a feeling similar to walking into a business meeting knowing you’re probably not going to get that promotion, or walking into an exam when you know you’ll probably fail. The trouble with negative stereotypes that the first test group was exposed to is that they can still impact people they aren’t directly meant to target. This is especially true of ones that permeate their way into popular media. They become difficult to escape.

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