The Benham brothers may have lost their reality show after being exposed as sexist homophobes, but are they really to blame for their behavior?
New research confirms that bigotry may be more than just a learned behavior. It could be programmed deep inside our brains, Mother Jones reports.
In a podcast, David Amodio, a neuroscientist at New York University, explains people’s subconscious biases or “implicit prejudices” when it comes to race.
He points to one study in which participants were asked to watch words appear on a screen and quickly categorize them as either positive or negative. Just before the words appeared a face would flash across the screen. The face was either black of white.
“What we find over and over again in the literature,” Amodio says “is that if a black person’s face was shown really quickly, then people are quicker at categorizing negative words than positive words that follow it. Versus if a white face was shown really quickly, people are usually quicker to categorize the positive words, compared with the negative words.”
Amodio explains that often times the subjects likely don’t consider themselves racist. He says that white participants “might write down on a questionnaire that they are positive in their attitudes towards black people…but when you give them a behavioral measure, of how they respond to pictures of black people, compared with white people, that’s when we start to see the effects come out.”
So what’s going on inside the brain that’s causing these unconscious biases?
Well, it turns out when people look at the faces of individuals belonging to a different race, a part of the brain called the amygdala can sometimes be activated. The amygdala is responsible for fear conditioning. Basically, its job is to flag things that may be dangerous and remind us to stay away from them.
Since our culture is littered with racial stereotypes, many of us have become programmed with inaccurate and prejudicial information about people who look different from us. The amygdala responds rapidly, before our conscious minds can respond, which Amodio says “might lead to the expression of some bias in a way that you don’t intend.”
This begs the question: If people’s brains can be programmed to be racist, might they also be programmed to be homophobic? And, if so, does that mean homophobes like the Benham brothers or Phil Roberston of Duck Dynasty, to name a few, should get a free pass for spewing hatred?
The study did not look at homphobes, but according to Amodio, there is never an excuse for bad behavior.
“The human mind is extremely adept at control and regulation,” he says, “and the fact that we have these biases should really be seen as an opportunity for us to be aware and do something about them.”
He adds: “I don’t really think humans have any good excuses for acting on their automatic biases.”