A study by Jennifer Richeson, Assistant Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences, reveals that interracial contact has a profound impact on a persons attention and performance. Richeson and her team found new evidence using brain imaging that white individuals attempt to control racial bias when exposed to black individuals, and that this act of suppressing bias exhausts mental resources.
Published in the online edition of Nature Neuroscience, the study combines the use of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which measures brain activity, with other behavioral tests common to research in social and cognitive psychology.
The findings suggest that harboring racial bias, however unintentional, makes negotiating interracial interactions more cognitively demanding. Similar to the depletion of a muscle after intensive exercise, the data suggest that the demands of the interracial interaction result in reduced capacity to engage in subsequent cognitive tasks, say the researchers.
According to Richeson, most people find it unacceptable to behave in prejudiced ways during interracial interactions and make an effort to avoid doing so, regardless of their level of racial bias. A different research project by Richeson and her colleagues suggested that these efforts could leave individuals temporarily depleted of the resources needed to perform optimally on certain cognitive tasks. The results suggest, according to the researchers, that harboring racial bias in an increasingly diverse society may affect us and impair cognitive performance.