Bias Is Emotional and Automatic

As I finished up the Masterclass on Groups and Identity where we looked at prejudice and bias, an article, entitled Why Your Brain Hates Other People, by Robert Sapolsky, professor of biology, neurology, and neurosurgery at Stanford University, came across my desk. I summarize the main points here, but it's well worth a read.

Our judgment about others is emotional and automatic

"Humans universally make Us/Them dichotomies along lines of race, ethnicity, gender, language group, religion, age, socioeconomic status, and so on." And it's "deeply hard-wired in our brains, with an ancient evolutionary legacy." "Other primates can make violent Us/Them distinctions [too]; after all, chimps band together and systematically kill the males in a neighboring group."

"The strength of Us/Them-ing [or bias] is shown by the: speed and minimal sensory stimuli required for the brain to process group differences; tendency to group according to arbitrary differences, and then imbue those differences with supposedly rational power; unconscious automaticity of such processes; and rudiments of it in other primates."

We use cognition to justify our emotional reactions post-hoc

Our reasons for vilifying members of the out-group  (the Thems) are cognitive. But, "the core of Us/Them-ing is emotional and automatic." We use cognition to justify our emotional reactions post-hoc to "convince ourselves that we have indeed rationally put our finger on why" we feel that way. "This can be shown with neuroimaging studies ... when fleetingly seeing the face of a Them, the amygdala activates. Critically, this comes long before (on the time scale of brain processing) more cognitive, cortical regions are processing the Them. The emotions come first."

"It’s a kind of confirmation bias: remembering supportive better than opposing evidence; testing things in ways that can support but not negate your hypothesis; skeptically probing outcomes you don’t like more than ones you do."

In addition, our "supposed rational cognitions about Thems can be unconsciously manipulated." Here's an example: "Show subjects slides about some obscure country; afterward, they will have more negative attitudes toward the place if, between slides, pictures of faces with expressions of fear appeared at subliminal speeds [speeds too fast to be perceived consciously]!"

To the Us-es, "different Thems come in different flavors with immutable, icky essences—threatening and angry, disgusting and repellent, ridiculous, primitive, and undifferentiated."

The most conspicuous way in which people may be categorized is on race. We saw in the Masterclass on Groups and Identity that, participants show greater amygdala activation to Black faces than to White faces. But, when a vegetable was shown before a black face and participants had to decide whether the person liked the vegetable, the amygdala didn't respond. Why was that? Because, "... as you imagine her sitting at dinner, enjoying that food, you are thinking of her as an individual, the surest way to weaken automatic categorization of someone as a Them."

What can we do to lessen the impact of bias?

  • Put Us-es and Thems together where "each side has roughly equal numbers; everyone’s treated equally and unambiguously; contact is lengthy and on neutral territory; there are “superordinate” goals where everyone works together on a meaningful task (say, summer campers turning a meadow into a soccer field)." "Even then, effects are typically limited." "Where contact really causes fundamental change is when it is prolonged."
  • To lessen an Us/Them implicit response: Prime "beforehand with a counter-stereotype (e.g., a reminder of a beloved celebrity Them);" "show people their implicit biases"; "pretend you’re a Them and explain your grievances." 
  • "Replace essentialism with individuation: In one study, white subjects were asked about their acceptance of racial inequalities. Half were first primed toward essentialist thinking, being told, “Scientists pinpoint the genetic underpinnings of race.” Half heard an anti-essentialist prime—“Scientists reveal that race has no genetic basis.” The latter made subjects less accepting of inequalities."
  • "Flatten hierarchies: Steep ones sharpen Us/Them differences, as those on top justify their status by denigrating the have-nots, while the latter view the ruling class as low warmth/high competence."


"If we accept that there will always be sides, it’s challenging to always be on the side of angels. Distrust essentialism. Remember that supposed rationality is often just rationalization, playing catch-up with subterranean forces we never suspect. Focus on shared goals. Practice perspective taking. Individuate, individuate, individuate."


Sapolsky, R. (2017). Why your brain hates other people and how to make it think differently [Electronic version]. June 22, 2017.

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