Racism on the brain: a neuroscientist explains how the world moved right

"The effects of fear and anger [on the brain]" may make us even more polarized, says neuroscientist Bobby Azarian

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published May 9, 2019 7:00AM (EDT)

A right-wing demonstrator participates in the Denver March Against Sharia Law in Denver, Colorado on June 10, 2017. (Getty/Salon)
A right-wing demonstrator participates in the Denver March Against Sharia Law in Denver, Colorado on June 10, 2017. (Getty/Salon)

Human behavior is a function of both nature and nurture. This, of course, extends to politics.

Hence, researchers have shown that, on average, the brains of conservative authoritarians as compared to liberals are quite different from one another. For example, conservative authoritarians are more fear-centered, tend to fixate on negativity, default to order and hierarchy, and are averse to new stimuli. By comparison, liberals are more tolerant of ambiguity and are more open to new experiences. The brains of liberals also seek out novelty.

However, there is an important qualifier: the social dynamics of a given society at a specific time also have a profound impact on how nature and nurture interact and the types of human behavior which results. Ultimately, human beings are much more than the sum of their parts — though biology may, in fact, play a very outsize role in human behavior.

In the United States and Europe, the relationship between nature, nurture and politics is particularly important in light of our shared authoritarian moment. How are right-wing authoritarian leaders such as Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen able to use fear to stir up racism, nativism, bigotry, and even violence among their supporters?

This authoritarian moment is a function of how the brains of conservative authoritarians are hardwired as well as the social environment (and related anxieties) that right-wing fake populist leaders such as Donald Trump are able to both create and exacerbate.

To solve the riddle of this very dangerous global moment will require a better understanding of the relationship(s) between nature, nurture, and politics. What do we know about racism as well as other types of racial animus (such as ethnocentrism and nativism) and their relationship to brain structures? How are fear and anxiety a powerful form of control and influence over individuals and groups? In what ways are Donald Trump and other right-wing authoritarians harnessing such forces to maintain and expand control over their supporters and other potential followers? Can neuroscience help to explain why some individuals and groups are more susceptible to such emotions? Is it possible to use drugs and pharmaceutical treatments to "cure" racism?

In an effort to answer these questions I spoke with Bobby Azarian. He is a cognitive neuroscientist associated with George Mason University. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, BBC Future, Scientific America, Quartz, and The Atlantic. He also hosts the Mind in the Machine blog at the website Psychology Today. Dr. Azarian is also a consultant for the popular Emmy-nominated YouTube series "Mind Field."

As a cognitive neuroscientist, how are you making sense of the political discord and tumult in the United States, Europe, and other countries at this moment?

One of the few good things to come out of Trump's campaign (and now presidency) is that he has put a spotlight on how psychology can be used to manipulate voters, especially in the age of social media. As a cognitive scientist whose research focuses on cognitive biases, what I see when I survey the social and political terrain in America and elsewhere are politicians using emotions such as fear and anger to manipulate how people think and make decisions. These can be racial biases, political biases, threat-related biases and types of biases which shape our perceptions of the world, and often grossly distort them. And that in turn influences our attitudes and our behavior and how we make decisions. Fear-mongering has been used a great deal by Donald Trump. Any time he needs to energize his base Trump basically tries to scare people by saying that Hispanic and Latino immigrants are rapists and murderers, or that Muslims hate America and want to destroy it.

When Trump says these things it terrifies people — especially those who already had that seed of fear planted in their heads by "news" outlets like Fox News. Feelings of fear promote what's called an "out-group bias"; this is another way of saying "tribalism." Fear also causes people to cling more strongly to their pre-existing worldviews, because our political or national identity make[s] us feel safe and protected. So in this fearful state, these voters are also more attracted to leaders who are promising to protect them from all the scary stuff which this same leader has been calling attention to and likely exaggerating for his or her own selfish purposes. Unfortunately, this works in terms of getting and keeping power. It is not anything new in politics. It is also not something that we see strictly on the right. The left has used it in the past. But at present it is the right-wing which have been using it much more for some time in America.

An important factor in the rise of Trumpism and other types of extreme right-wing politics is that the brains of conservatives are hardwired to over-respond to fear and other threats. The brains of conservative-authoritarians also demonstrate a negativity bias.

Anxiety biases our visual attention. Studies have shown that people with anxiety tend to focus more on either real or perceived threats in their environment. And it doesn't even have to [be] an actual threat. What some people would see as a neutral stimulus, other people would see as a threat.

In research it has been shown that even millisecond differences of focusing on threats longer than, say, a non-anxious person would experience [the same threat] builds up over time. In total, this creates a misperception of [an] environment being more threatening than it actually is. This is a type of loop which perpetuates anxiety. Conservatives on average — not all of them — but on average show that type of threat-related bias. There is much in common between conservatives and anxious people. And this makes sense given the their ideology and the types of messages that are being fed to them through the right-wing echo chamber and powerful outlets such as Fox News.

Having a heightened response to fear is not necessarily a bad thing. For example, if something bad happens, a hyper-vigilant person might be better prepared to handle the situation because they are anticipating it. These traits evolved over time to help us respond to threats. This was obviously long before television and video games and other types of media. Through the TV news and other media, human beings, especially in this culture, are being bombarded by a mountain of emotionally charged stimuli. Now the threat and anxiety response is not always adaptive anymore. It may sometimes not be the appropriate response. That type of bias can result in irrational behavior.

There is a lingering and incorrect narrative that Trump won the White House because of "white working class anxiety." Research by social scientists and others has demolished that fiction. Trump won because of racial animus if not outright racism among his voters. What does the research reveal about the relationship between brain structure and racial animus?

There are implicit and explicit racial biases. Those biases have neural correlates. Therefore, almost all of us have an implicit racial bias, which is unconscious in many cases. It is largely innocuous. Moreover, fixed implicit biases do not always translate into explicit racism and overt racist behavior. That move from implicit to explicit racial bias has a great deal to do with what is going on at the neural level.

Implicit bias is associated with a structure in the brain called the amygdala; this part of the brain is known to be involved in the processing of emotional and other salient stimuli. When we visually process something that causes fear, that feeling is related to a surge of activation in the amygdala. This is a normal response. But when there is an exaggerated response in the amygdala, one that is not attenuated by other brain areas such as emotional regulation and impulse control, then our sense of fear can manifest itself as prejudiced ideas and behaviors.

In a healthy functioning brain, an area called the prefrontal cortex, which is slower acting, slows the amygdala response and in essence says to a person, "hey, there's no rational reason to fear this or to feel angry." One could really conclude that explicit racism is often the result of an impaired prefrontal cortex response. Understanding racism on the neural level is very important.

Racism and racial animus manifest are omnipresent in American society. What do we know about the neurological and cognitive dimensions of overt malignant racists — for example neo-Nazis, Kluxers and other members of the "alt-right" — as compared to the biology and behavior of people who manifest other more day-to-day quotidian types of racism? Never mind internalized racism by nonwhites.

That is a phenomenon that has not really been explored in much depth. Given your observation about racial minorities, there have actually been studies which show that some African-Americans actually manifest implicit bias where they are faster to categorize words as negative in a computer task when it follows a black face as compared to a white face. So yes, these biases are widespread. It is something that we have to bring an awareness to as a society. Everyone should know that they have these racial biases because there are many people in denial of these facts about themselves.

Are there pharmaceuticals or other drugs that could be used to medicate and otherwise help malignant racists?

We're too early in our understanding of the brain to try a pharmacological treatment for racism. The drugs that are used in psychiatry are very complicated and act on different neurotransmitter systems in the brain. These drugs do not always have the effects that we anticipate. There can be very nasty side effects. So I do not think a drug for curing or treating racism is a real possibility. However, there are some other things to consider and hypothesize about.

There has been a big resurgence in research about psychedelics and what is known as psilocybin — this is the ingredient in magic mushrooms. Psylocybin resets the brain in a way, and that reaction and chemical process is correlated with experiences such as spiritual awakening or other new ways of seeing the world. LSD and Ketamine do this as well. There is research which also shows that psychedelics consistently shifted individuals' world views towards being more liberal. Perhaps this is evidence of the existence of universal or objective morals. If people are particularly dogmatic and have rigid ideologies these types of drugs have been known to change them, to make such views and ideologies more malleable.

The research shows that brain structure impacts political and other types of behavior. How then do we resolve the balance between environment and socialization?

Every behavior has a neural correlate. It's just something that hasn't been identified in most cases. So if you have a psychological phenomenon or behavior there is something going on in the brain that is causing it. Otherwise it would be like magic. Brain imaging really just came about in the 90's. We are now, very recently, identifying the neural correlates for a lot of behavior.

It's a really messy problem. When you talk about nature and nurture it is hard to separate the environmental component, because the brain is constantly being molded by the outside world. Nurture is constantly impacting nature, and our experiences can even alter which genes are expressed. That really blurs the line between nature and nurture. Human beings should really try to be aware of their information diet and the company they keep because such stimuli are actually changing our brain and cognitive systems in a very real and very physical way.

But as far as looking at brains, it would be hard to distinguish between very racist and perhaps even dangerous people and those who are not. For example, if you were trying to just look at brain imaging without looking at any behavioral evidence, I believe that you would not really be able to say with any practical certainty that this is a racist brain. Because there are so many other variables involved — and that is something neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists are constantly trying to figure out — every brain is different. So the more brain imaging studies that are done, the more artificial intelligence, machine learning algorithms are applied to this data, the more we'll begin to parse out neural profiles for different types of people with different types of behaviors. It is in the realm of science fiction now, but someday in the future, 10, 20 [years] from now, we might be able to identify [the] pathways or abnormalities in the brain which [are] responsible for some of that nasty behavior such as racism and the like.

Given the influence of brain structure on political values and behavior, where are all of these new authoritarians coming from? If change in brain structure takes a huge amount of time, why is this behavior with Trump and his right-wing authoritarian supporters manifesting itself now?

It is very regressive for a democratic society to slide towards authoritarianism. One big reason for this change is fear. Donald Trump and Steve Bannon understood the psychological effects of fear and they weaponized it to take power. Consider the Facebook Cambridge Analytica data scandal, where data got into the hands of Bannon [who] used it to manipulate voters. With Trump's campaign, it seems like they perfected the a strategy of fear mongering to manipulate people into some other type of reality.

With mass hysteria, many people want someone like Donald Trump who's saying, "these 'others' are the evil people. I'm going to save you from them."

I think the fear is driving the collective narcissism, because fear causes us to bolster our worldviews and our identities. This version of American nationalism makes many people feel safe.

So to summarize: Epigenetics aside, it is not that all of a sudden the brains of millions of people spontaneously changed and they then wanted a Trump-type figure or other authoritarian to lead them. Rather, it is that there are individuals who possess these preexisting biological, structural and other physiological orientations and then manipulating the environment made their authoritarian impulses more salient?

Conservatives have a threat bias because they have larger amygdalas. At the same time, with Trump in office, Democrats are probably more fearful than ever, more angry than ever. There are studies which show that the effects of fear will cause a liberal — probably more of a moderate liberal — to be shifted towards conservatism because of concerns about safety. But there are other studies showing that maybe liberals who are a bit more fearful are actually going to be pushed farther to the left.

The effects of fear and anger can only polarize America even more. That is unfortunate because that dynamic helps Donald Trump, as it energizes his base. It also pushes moderates to a more extreme stance which might not be as attractive to mainstream voters. This is a win-win for Donald Trump. But hopefully as more and more damning information comes out about Trump, the public will be able to check their biases and assess the situation more rationally and reasonably. That is my hope for the future.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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