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Understanding Prejudices

BrainWe don’t always say what we think: we often hide prejudices we have, even from ourselves.  Yet unconscious prejudices become visible with tests.  Researchers in Bern have shown that additional processes in the brain are not responsible for this, yet some of them simply take longer.  For example, sports fans will need more time to associate a positive word with a rival team, and supporters of a political party associate a favorable trait faster with their party than with political rivals.  It’s been known for a while that a positive association with one’s own group happens unconsciously faster than with an “outgroup”.  Such different reaction times become visible in the Implicit Association Test (IAT), which psychologists use to examine unconscious processes and prejudices.

Now a team headed by Professor Daria Knoch from the Department of Social Psychology and Social Neuroscience from the University of Bern shows that an additional mental process isn’t responsible for this, but rather that the brain lingers longer in certain processes.  The study has now been published in the scientific journal “PNAS” (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA).  The researchers used an Implicit Association Test with 83 test subjects who are soccer fans or political supporters.  While the test persons had to associate positive terms on the screen with a button click, the brain activity was recorded with an electroencephalogram (EEG).  By analyzing this data, the researchers were able to depict all processes in the brain for the first time.

The analysis has revealed that the brain runs through seven processes, from the presentation of stimulus up to the button click, in less than one second.  The reaction time with the outgroup situation is longer since some of the seven processes take longer, not because a new process is switched in-between.  A complete consideration of all processes in the brain is essential for an interpretation.  One of the researchers provided this example: on Monday after work, you go to dinner with a friend and then go to sleep afterwards at 10pm.  On Friday you do the exact same thing, but come home two hours later.  If you compare the days at 8pm, you would conclude that this is an identical time schedule, because both times you’re having dinner with your friend.  But if the comparison takes place at 11pm, the two situations are different, and one could conclude that you have an entirely different daily schedule.  Therefore, it’s clear that selective considerations don’t allow for any conclusions with regard to the entire day.

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