Is racial prejudice like fear of snakes?

2 minute read

An article on MSNBC suggests that the apprehension people hold for members of other races may be part of human nature. The study (subscription required) by Andreas Olsson and colleagues (2005) is in this week's Science, and the article describes it like this:

The basic experiment paired mild electric shocks with pictures of male faces, as well as various animals. When the shocks were removed, the subjects continued to react fearfully to the faces of a different race.
Phelps and her colleagues measured a fear response by increased sweating in their adult subjects. As previous experiments have shown, images of snakes and spiders elicited a response even after the shocks stopped, while the negative emotional reaction to birds and butterflies quickly subsided.

The idea that people have an intrinsic bias toward fear of snakes has never really been demonstrated in a satisfactory way, at least to me. So I'm very skeptical of this approach to studying race differences. What the researchers are studying is not a stress response that people have ordinarily, but instead the lack of a return to baseline skin conductance after faces are shown in association with electrical shocks. The fact that subjects do not show the same results for different races does show that something is going on -- although I would like to see the variation in results rather than the means, since individuals ought to vary greatly. But exactly what is going on is not obvious. Here is the proposal of the study authors:

In other words, because of its relatively recent emergence as an important dimension in human social interaction, race inherently cannot be the basis of the outgroup preparedness result. Instead, it is likely that sociocultural learning about the identity and qualities of outgroups is what provides the basis for the greater persistence of fear conditioning involving members of another group. Most notably, individuals acquire negative beliefs about out-groups according to their local cultures, and few reach adulthood without considerable knowledge of these prejudices and stereotypes (14, 29, 30). It is plausible that repeated exposure to information about outgroups might prepare individuals to fear newly encountered outgroup members (Olsson et al. 2005:787).

Maybe. Cultural patterns must be more important in this than noncultural ones, as reflected by the results from people who had dated interracially: they didn't exhibit the same effect as those without such a history. One wonders whether people who watch a lot of legal dramas have the same reactions as those who don't. Or how Americans differ from other nationalities...

At some point, this has to lose much of its meaning for biology. Are people adapted to recognize "the other" and fear it? I think it will take a lot more to substantiate this idea.

Regardless of the real explanation, this quote from a study coauthor is pretty accurate:

"Our discovery underscores the strong bond between person and social group," said Mahzarin Banaji from Harvard University. "It shows how strong is the 'pull' that the groups we belong to exert on us. We can't shake off the group easily.


Olsson A, Ebert JP, Banaji MR, Phelps EA. 2005. The role of social groups in the persistence of learned fear. Science 309:785-787. Full text (subscription required)