• A study has found that the human brain is good at learning negative stereotypes, highlighting why negative media reporting can be dangerous. (Westend6/Getty Images)Source: Westend6/Getty Images
New research helps to explain how racial prejudice emerges and spreads.
Alyssa Braithwaite

3 Nov 2016 - 4:03 PM  UPDATED 3 Nov 2016 - 4:04 PM

The human brain is predisposed to learn negative stereotypes, according to a new study which helps to explain how racial prejudice emerges and spreads.  

The study, which was published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, was conducted on 22 volunteers, who had their brains scanned while they were told about two fictitious groups of people: the Kitils and the Pellums.

The two groups were secretly assigned as 'good' (the Pellums) and 'bad' (the Kitils), and two thirds of the information given to the participants fit that stereotype and one third did not.

Examples included "a member of Kitil kicked a cat", and "a member of Pellum gave their mum a bunch of flowers".

Brain scans taken as the participants learnt more and more information about the two groups showed that activity in the anterior temporal pole matched their acquisition of prejudice. 

Brain hardwired to stereotype
Like it or not, new research shows that stereotyping other people according to their race and sex is a process ingrained within our brains. The good news is that we do it unknowingly and can consciously override the process should we want to.

Lead researcher Hugo Spiers from University College London said the study also found that the brain responds more strongly to information about groups who are portrayed unfavourably. 

"The negative groups became treated as more and more negative. Worse than the equivalent for the positive groups," Spiers said. 

"The newspapers are filled with ghastly things people do... You're getting all these news stories and the negative ones stand out.

"When you look at Islam, for example, there's so many more negative stories than positive ones and that will build up over time."

The study also revealed a characteristic brain signature seen when participants were told a member of a 'bad' group had done something positive.

"Whenever someone from from a really bad group did something nice they were like, 'Oh weird'," Spiers said.

The BBC was recently accused of racism after it posted a video online asking "Black people and friend chicken - is there any truth in it?" 

The UK public broadcaster put the video on Newsbeat's Twitter feed, on the last day of Black History Month, to promote a documentary about racism faced by black people in today's Britain.

A tagline, "Black people and fried chicken - is there any truth in it?", which accompanied the clip was later removed.

The video was later reposted with a change in accompanying text, stating: "We're talking about being black and British, the stereotypes you might face, like this one?"

A BBC spokeswoman said: "These short films show young people from various backgrounds discussing their experiences of dealing with different stereotypes, which accompanies a wider documentary looking at racism in the UK."

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