Racial stigmatization may change the brain

A study looks at the negative impact of stereotyping on personal motivation.

It may be that the United States is confronting its long history of racism and discrimination as never before. For many people in the U.S., there is a growing recognition that people of color and those belonging to marginalized groups are confronted on a daily basis with a society that undermines them.

A new study from the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) suggests that for those on the receiving end of such discriminatory attitudes, dealing with negative stigmatization may actually alter how the brain functions.

In the new UCSB study, exposure to negative stereotyping changed the behavior of the subcortical nucleus accumbens, a brain area associated with the anticipation of reward and punishment.

According to one of the study’s authors, social psychologist Kyle Ratner, “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.”

“It is clear that people who belong to historically marginalized groups in the U.S. contend with burdensome stressors on top of the everyday stressors that members of nondisadvantaged groups experience. For instance, there is the trauma of overt racism, stigmatizing portrayals in the media and popular culture, and systemic discrimination that leads to disadvantages in many domains of life, from employment and education to healthcare and housing to the legal system.”

— Kyle Ratner, UCSB

The paper features in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.

The damaging power of stereotyping

Ratner and his colleagues decided to investigate the effect of negative stereotyping on brain processing in Latinx UCSB students, specifically Mexican American students. In their paper, the authors note that Mexican American people represent 63% of the U.S. Latinx population.

Ratner has done previous work on the fatiguing, depression-inducing effects of life stressors. “In work I was involved in over a decade ago,” he recalls, “we showed that life stress can be associated with anhedonia, which is a blunted sensitivity to positive and rewarding information, such as winning money.” It can be the anticipation of reward that motivates an individual to persist in the face of adversities.

Says Ratner, “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. And that’s one route to depression.”

While other research has reported that exposure to stigma and discrimination can cause anger, racing thoughts, and even high arousal, Ratner is more interested in its exhausting effect on those who experience it. He notes that it can generate feelings of “oh, not again,” or “I’m so tired of this.”

The study

For his experiments, Ratner and his colleagues recruited 40 self-identified Mexican American students from the UCSB psychology research subject pool. They randomly assigned the individuals to either the stigma condition or control group.

As the researchers tracked the participants’ brain activity using functional MRI (fMRI), both groups watched a rapid series of eight 2–3-minute videos regarding four subject areas:

For the stigma condition group, the selected videos discussed the four topics from the point of view of the Latinx community, suggesting that the problems were of particular concern to Latinx people, whom they disproportionately affect. However, “these videos were not overtly racist,” says Ratner.

The videos that the control group watched covered the same topics but as they related to the U.S. general population.

Immediately afterward, the participants completed a Monetary Incentive Delay (MID) task in which they had to push a button each time they saw a star displayed onscreen. Faster response times resulted in either winning money or avoiding financial penalties.

Individuals whom the team had shown stigmatizing video content proved to be significantly slower at this test than those in the control group.

“We saw that something about watching these stigmatizing videos was later influencing the pattern of response within [the nucleus accumbens] brain region,” says Ratner.

His interpretation is that the nucleus accumbens affected the participants’ attitudes toward financial loss or gain differently as a result of viewing the stereotyping videos. “The nucleus accumbens is very important for motivated behavior, and sparks of motivation are important for many aspects for everyday life,” he says.

When an individual feels caught in a situation that is out of their control, they may experience a loss of motivation. This feeling may be particularly difficult to overcome when it is the result of constant, insidious stereotyping that people see in the media and throughout popular culture.

“It becomes something you can’t escape — similar to other stressors that are out of people’s control and have been shown to cause anhedonia.”

Just one aspect

“People shouldn’t generalize too much from this specific finding,” cautions Ratner, as the research focused solely on a single effect of stereotyping.

He also notes that the team only studied college-age individuals. Ratner is planning to conduct further experiments with a larger, more diverse cohort.

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