Sep 08, 2017

A Neuroscience Perspective: Divisive Stereotypes and their Impacts

By Dr. Marin Been

This article comes from a presentation given by Dr. Marin Been on a panel exploring the potential for an international agreement to reduce divisive stereotypes in school textbooks, from different disciplinary perspectives. The panel was organized by the CELL Foundation and was part of the Association for Public Policy and Management’s (APPAM) International Conference in Brussels on July 14, 2017.

As a cognitive neuroscientist, I approach topics of interest for psychological research by integrating the knowledge we have of brain activity with the knowledge we have of psychology, to study the neural mechanisms responsible for cognitive processes and more complex social behaviors. With this perspective, this article sets out to explore the links between “divisive stereotypes” and conflict or violence and, in so doing, lend a cognitive neuroscientific perspective to the Conflict and Education Learning Laboratory’s (CELL) work on divisive stereotypes in primary and secondary school textbooks.

I will begin by briefly examining the social psychological and social neuroscientific perspectives on stereotypes more generally, including what are they (i.e., their definitions) and what we know about their origin in the brain. I will then examine what is known about their links to violence and conflict, drawing upon studies on the neural basis of implicit prejudice as well as on the more cognitive component of social bias.

Before delving into discussions on the impact of divisive stereotypes, it is important to know what psychologists are talking about when they refer to “stereotypes.” In the early days of social psychological research, “stereotypical thinking” was seen as erroneous thinking.[i] For some time, psychologists considered it as pathological and linked stereotypical thinking to authoritarian personalities. Hence, stereotypical thinking was associated with a specific personality profile. This view came from research originating in the early 1940s focused on understanding anti-Semitism in the context of Nazi Germany.[ii]

In 1954, Gordon Allport took a different approach to understand both stereotypes and prejudice. In his book The Nature of Prejudice, Allport noted that categorization is a part of human nature. Humans are prone to placing things and people into categories using various traits: for example, physical features, gender, age, etc. In this interpretation, prejudice is a logical result of the categorical thinking people use to cope with the amount, richness, and complexity of information they are exposed to in day-to-day life.[iii] This focus on the cognitive processes that are involved in stereotyping – rather than the content or meaning of stereotypes, themselves – has greatly influenced the way in which stereotypes have been studied. Within the social cognition field, stereotypes are considered generalizations, and are a normal part of human cognition.

Psychologists studying inter-group relations have drawn distinctions between stereotyping and prejudice. They define stereotypes as the semantic knowledge of a group, i.e., the linguistic concepts we associate with a group and the beliefs we may have about this group. Prejudice, on the other hand, refers to the evaluation of the group (the emotional judgement), based on this semantic knowledge.[iv] Prejudice may reflect our preference for members belonging to the same groups as we do, the so-called “in-group,” and a dislike of “out-group” members. Moreover, such prejudice may induce emotions ranging from fear, disgust, and even hatred. The behavior that results from designating a person as belonging to a group we feel strongly negative about can result in discrimination and dehumanization, and can escalate to violence, conflict, and, in extreme cases, genocide.[v][vi]

In sum, “stereotypes” are category-based beliefs we have about people, “prejudice” is a set of affective reactions or attitudes, and “discrimination” refers to the resulting negative behavior. Thus, we can think of “divisive stereotypes” as instances of stereotypes that lead to the most extreme forms of negative attitudes towards different social groups and their members, which can lay the groundwork for discriminatory behaviors and violence or conflict.

There are several reasons why, after decades of research, psychologists continue to study the causes and consequences of stereotypes and prejudice. These reasons also extend to why we should examine the more extreme form of divisive stereotypes. First, they are pervasive. Stereotypes have been present in all cultures, time periods, and systems of education, targeting a wide range of groups in society.[vii] Research has argued that gender, race, and age are the most prevalent bases for stereotyping.[viii] Second, their impact is considerable. Perceived discrimination has a significant negative impact on both mental and physical health. Elevated stress is associated with unhealthy behavior and stress linked to discrimination may lead to the internalization of stereotypes and result in low self-esteem.[ix]

"Perceived discrimination has a significant negative impact on both mental and physical health."

Third, stereotypes are highly complex. Their complexity, in terms of both content and extent, is related to a multitude of factors that are in play, including, but not limited to, biological processes, interpersonal factors, intergroup factors, and socio-cultural factors.[x] For this reason, the processes behind stereotyping continue to defy explanation.

Charting the connections between divisive stereotypes and acts of violence or participation in conflict is not straightforward. Stereotypes, prejudice, and the resulting behaviors are intertwined in many ways, making it difficult to untangle their specific roles. For this reason, in psychological research on implicit racial bias, distinguishing stereotyping from broader evaluation is not clear cut. Dr. David Amodio, a neuroscientist based at New York University, argues that although stereotyping and evaluation are intertwined when it comes to the expression of behavior, the knowledge neuroscientists have of the way human memory works, the types of memory, and the distribution in the brain, suggests that there might be two separate systems that give rise to stereotypes and evaluation.[xi] This stands in contrast to previous research, which assumed that the underlying cognitive processes were the same.

To better understand the impact of divisive stereotypes and the underlying brain mechanisms, I would like to briefly explore two key neuroscientific studies related to implicit prejudice and the more cognitive side of social bias, which were examined by Amodio (2014).[xii] Research on the neural basis of implicit prejudice (reflecting the emotional component of social bias) has mostly focused on the structure in our brain that is sometimes described as the origin of our emotions. This is the area where emotions are processed, and is the area that is involved in fast responses when a threat has been detected. To provide some context for these studies, researchers can infer when and where a brain area becomes activated by looking at increased blood flow to that area. This is because neurons, which are the building blocks of our brain, require oxygen to become active. The amount of oxygen in the blood flow determines the magnetic properties of the blood. These differences can be detected by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and be used to infer in what instances certain brain areas are more or less active. Several studies related to group bias and prejudice have been carried out wherein participants’ brain activity was measured while being exposed to pictures of black and white faces. One such study, conducted by Ronquillo et al. (2007), argued that white participants exhibit more amygdala activity when looking at faces with darker skin tone than lighter skin tone. In other words, amygdala activity increases with stimuli associated with out-group members.[xiii]

"[I]t is crucial that we take efforts to ensure that our classrooms and educational materials are not transmitting, however subtly, divisive stereotypes that could cause significant damage later in life."

Another line of research that has focused on stereotypes falls on the more cognitive side of social bias and is related to the conceptual attributes that are linked to a particular group. One such study seeking to better understand racial bias used fMRI to distinguish patterns of brain activation when white participants viewed pairs of white and black faces. Participants were asked to make evaluations such as: Who would you befriend?” or “Who is more likely to enjoy athletic activities?” This study revealed that the parts of the brain that were activated in participants were those that are also involved in memory functions.[xiv] Thus, based on this and other studies, the process of stereotyping involves storing information into memory.

To conclude, understanding the way prejudice and stereotyping works in the brain is important because such knowledge can be used to inform interventions aimed at reducing discrimination. If, for example, neuroscience provides some evidence or insights that the processes that underlie stereotyping and extreme prejudice (or divisive stereotypes) are distinctly separate, this might imply that interventions require different approaches. Also, it might help us to evaluate the interventions we design, with respect to their effectiveness, as a considerable amount of racial bias is implicit and not shown in overt behavior. Additionally, research shows that inter-group attitudes develop during childhood, in children as young as five years of age. Hence, it is crucial that we take efforts to ensure that our classrooms and educational materials are not transmitting, however subtly, divisive stereotypes that could cause significant damage later in life.

I hope that I have been able to shed some light on this issue from a cognitive neuroscientific perspective, and I look forward to my panel colleagues’ contributions from the disciplines of law, education, and social science to provide further insight on the links between divisive stereotypes and violence and conflict.

About the Author

Dr. Marin Been is a cognitive neuroscientist and an academic adviser at Maastricht University, faculty of Psychology and Neuroscience. Trained as a psychologist with a Master’s degree in both Neuropsychology and Cognitive Neuroscience, she holds a PhD in Visual Neuroscience and wrote her dissertation on the neural correlates of learning-induced plasticity in the visual cortex.


[i] For an exhaustive historical overview, see Schneider, D. (2004) The Psychology of Stereotyping. New York: Guilford Press.

[ii] Adorno, T., Frenkel-Brunswik, E., Levinson, D., and R. Sanford (1950) The Authoritarian Personality. New York: Harper and Row.

[iii] Allport, G. (1954) The Nature of Prejudice. Garden City, NY: Doubleday/Anchor.

[iv] Allport (1954)

[v] Direct or indirect genocide, which refers to creating massive material disadvantages in a group that causes it to exterminate itself through disease, suicide, alcoholism, drug abuse, and acute despair.

[vi] Staub, E. (1989) The Roots of Evil: The origins of genocide and other group violence. New York: Cambridge University Press.

[vii] Scheepers, D., Ellemers N. and B. Derks (2013) “The ‘Nature’ of Prejudice: What Neuroscience has to Offer the Study of Intergroup Relations.” In B. Derks, D. Scheepers, and N. Ellemers (Eds.) Neuroscience of Prejudice and Intergroup Relations. New York: Psychology Press: Pg. 2.

[viii] Mackie, D., Hamilton, D., Susskind, I., and Rosselli, F. (1996) “Social psychological foundations of stereotype formation.” In C. Macae, C. Stangor, and M. Hewstone (Eds.), Stereotypes and stereotyping. Pp. 41-77. New York: Guilford Press.

[ix] Pascoe, E. and L. Richman (2009) “Perceived discrimination and health: A meta-analytic review.” Psychological Bulletin. Vol 135: 531–554.

[x] Scheepers, D., Ellemers N. and B. Derks (2013: 2)

[xi] Amodio, D. (2008) “The social neuroscience of intergroup relations.” European Review of Social Psychology. Vol 19: 1-54; Amodio, D. and K. Ratner (2011) “A memory systems model of implicit social cognition.” Current Directions in Psychological Science. Vol 20: 143-148.

[xii] Amodio, D. (2014) “The neuroscience of prejudice and stereotyping.” Nature. Vol 15: 670-682.

[xiii] Ronquillo, J., Denson, T., Lickel, B., Lu, Z., Nandy, A., and K. Maddox, K. (2007) “The effect of skin tone on race-related amygdale activity: An fMRI investigation.” Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. Vol 2: 39–44.

[xiv] Gilbert, S., Swencionis, J. and D. Amodio (2012) “Evaluative versus trait representation in intergroup social judgments: distinct roles of anterior temporal lobe and prefrontal cortex.” Neuropsychologia. Vol 50: 3600–3611.

Image Credit: Max Pixel 2016