Some recent National Public Radio (NPR) programs caught my attention this month. One segment of the NPR program Talk of the Nation dealt with the conspiracy group called birthers and the nature of rumors, and another segment of the NPR program Science Friday dealt with "Why We Trust."
How this relates to the Asian and Pacific Islander American concerns and issues that are usually covered in this newsletter is a little ancillary. What fascinated me about the topics covered in these and other related programs and articles I found was the underlining brain research that is being done by scientist and researchers. When I heard those first two radio programs, I began to wonder what new brain research was being done in the subjects of stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination. Specifically, are there scientific explanations for why we stereotype, prejudge, and discriminate, and what could be done about it?
Needless to say, my research for this article only scratches the surface of this expansive field of study. I can't explain too much on the articles that I have seen because I'm not sure if I understand them myself. I will discuss some of the basics that I have learned and supply some links to academic articles on this subject.
Summary of Various Radio Programs and Articles on Subjects Related to the Brain
Ground Up In the Rumor Mill
Talk of the Nation, July 22, 2009
In this program, host Neal Conan speaks with guest Sam Wang, professor of neuroscience at Princeton University and co-author of Welcome to your Brain. They discuss the nature of rumors and conspiracy believers.
Here are some of the key points from this discussion -
False rumors are aided by "source amnesia." Human memory is often faulty and alterable. What is often lost from memory is the source of where we receive some bit of information. Remembering the source to some information is the key to its credibility. Source amnesia allows falsehoods to get confused and mixed up with the truth. An example of this is some bit of information that you remember hearing, but can't remember where you heard it and whether it was even correct or not.
Compounding our confusion over the truthfulness of some information is our "bias dissimulation" or confirmation bias. We tend to remember parts of information that confirm or go along with our biases and forget or reject information that does not.
Strong emotions and repetition also help to reaffirm a memory, whether it is the truth or not, and can create barriers that obstruct us from seeing the truth.
In Chapter 1 of Prof. Wang's book, it describes how our brains often throw away information, takes mental shortcuts, and invent memories. An experiment is described where the subjects of the experiment show a "tendency to attribute groups of related characteristics to people without much evidence." The text goes on to say that our brain's haste to estimate likely outcomes "may also be the root cause of many of the stereotypes and prejudices that are common in society."
Why We Trust
Science Friday, July 24, 2009
The key point in this discussion with Antonio Damasio, Professor of Neuroscience, University of Southern California was that studies confirm that we do have tendencies to initially judge people's trustworthiness by their appearance. His studies also showed that the part of the brain called the amygdala appears to have some influence over evaluation of trust. People that had damage to their amygdala tended to trust everyone.
This program led me to other related Science Friday programs.
The Science of Decision-Making
Science Friday, July 24, 2009
Guests: Michael J. Frank, Assistant Professor, Brown University; Jennifer S. Lerner, Professor, Harvard University; Colin Camerer, Professor, California Institute of Technology
In this program the guests discuss various factors that play into decision making. This program covered many different points. Here's a summary.
People when confronted with choices have a tendency to choose the option that had a good outcome in the past. People with a certain gene variations may be predisposed to being open to exploring new choices when the choices are uncertain.
Integral emotions are feelings that have a direct connection to the decision being made. Incidental emotions are feelings that may be carried over from a time before we are confronted with a decision. Incidental emotions such as anger can play much more of a role in our decision making than we may think.
Incidental anger makes you more optimistic - predisposes you to believing things are going to turn out your way, makes you take more risks because you perceive less risk, makes you think more heuristically rather than systematically, gives you a sense of control and certainty, and causes you to think less deeply. See the article Portrait of The Angry Decision Maker.
Neuroscientist, psychologist, and even economist are using new tools to study the human thought process. One of these tools is functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI). fMRI gives scientist and researchers a way to peer inside the human brain while we think and see what general areas of the brain are utilized for that thought. By knowing the general map of the brain, scientist can electrically stimulate a certain brain region or alter brain chemistry to see if it triggers certain thoughts. These maps of the brain generated from fMRI can also be helpful in designing new brain experiments.
Do You Want to Believe?
Science Friday, October 3, 2008
The key point in this discussion between host Ira Flatow and guest Jennifer Whitson, Assistant Professor at the University of Texas at Austin, is that there is a strong correlation between a lack of control and belief in conspiracies and illusions.
Research shows that in circumstances in which a person is not in control, they're more likely to see illusions, notice patterns where none exist, and be convinced in conspiracy theories.
"People see false patterns in all types of data, imagining trends in stock markets, seeing faces in static, and detecting conspiracies between acquaintances. This suggests that lacking control leads to a visceral need for order - even imaginary order," said Jennifer Whitson.
This also explains why there are so many superstitions related to sporting events, gambling, the weather, and any other things that are out of our control. When I was a software engineer, whenever we couldn't figure out the cause of a problem and it would somehow disappear, I would call this voodoo programming and voodoo computing.
On a more serious note, this also explains why groups often scapegoat and blame others when times get bad. It's not too hard to make the jump and conclude that the lack of control is at the heart of much of the discrimination, hatred, violence, wars, and other problems of the world.
Other Related Academic Articles on the Subject
Biography of and list of articles by Susan T. Fiske, Professor of Psychology, Princeton University - a leading researcher on stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination.
• Biography and Article List
• Article List
(Dis)respecting versus (Dis)liking
Susan T. Fiske, Jun Xu, and Amy C. Cuddy
A Model of (often mixed) Stereotype Content
Fiske, S. T., Cuddy, A. J., Glick, P., & Xu, J. (2002).
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82, 878-902.
Controlling Racial Prejudice
Mary E. Wheeler and Susan T. Fiske
Dehumanizing the Lowest of the Low
Lasana T. Harris and Susan T. Fiske
Neuro-imaging responses to extreme outgroups. Psychological Science, 17, 847-853.
Social Groups that Elicit Disgust are Differentially Processed in the mPFC
Lasana T. Harris and Susan T. Fiske
Social Cognitive Affective Neuroscience, 2, 45-51.