People are more racist when their heart beats faster, new study says

The experiments conducted in the study found evidence of 'implicit bias'

People are more racist when their heart beats faster, new study says

File photo of a stethoscope. | Image: Khalil Hamra AP/Press Association Images

A study published this week suggest that people are more racist when their heart is beating faster.

Research showed that judgments that inaccurately presume a black person to pose a threat are more common when the heart has signaled the amygdala to pay attention than when it is off-duty.

Published in the journal Nature Communications, British psychologists conducted experiments on 32 test subjects to test for 'implicit bias' -  referring to the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner.

The conductors primed subjects to perceive a threat (seeing a gun rather than a tool or a phone in a man’s hand) by first showing them a photo of a black man’s face. In cases where that "priming" came on the heartbeat, subjects were more likely, in an experimental exercise, to assume a man in a photograph was holding a gun (irrespective of whether it was a wrench or a cellphone). When the priming came between heartbeats, subjects were more likely to distinguish between a gun and an everyday object in the pictured person’s hand.

Scientists have already shown that when the heart beats it sends a signal to the brain that heightens our response to fear. These results highlight how deeply rooted such judgments become in the kinds of threat-assessment processes that help humans survive.

“We all know that to a very large extent, social and racial stereotypes seem to be embedded in our culture,” said University of London psychologist Manos Tsakiris, the paper’s senior author. “What we’re showing with this study is they also become embodied in our physiology.”

Implicit bias - a political issue?

The subject of racial relations came up frequently during the US presidential debates between Donald trump and Hillary Clinton.

During the first presidential debate in September 2016, moderator Lester Holt asked Clinton if she “believed that police are implicitly biased against black people” and Clinton responded, "Implicit bias is a problem for everyone, not just police."

At a senate hearing following the debate, FBI director James Comey vowed to build a database within the next two years to detect implicit bias within policing.

"We will build a nationwide database [...] that shows us what happened, who was involved, what were they like, what were the circumstances, so we can have informed conversations," he told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.