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When Social Fear Disappears, So Does Racism

Children with a genetic condition that quells their fear of strangers don't stereotype based on race, according to a new study. The findings support the idea that prejudice stems from fear of people from different social groups, although some researchers question how well the new study supports that conclusion.

Even individuals who profess not to be racist often harbor racist attitudes on an unconscious level, implying that racial prejudice is socially or biologically ingrained. In a 2005 paper in Science, New York University psychologist Elizabeth Phelps and her colleagues exposed black subjects and white subjects to pictures of both black and white faces, first in conjunction with a mild electric shock and then without the shock. Once the shock was gone, the volunteers' fear reactions, as measured by electrical reactions in the skin, soon disappeared when exposed to pictures of their own race, but remained to a limited extent when exposed to pictures of the opposite race. Phelps’s team concluded that racial bias was linked to a deep-seated fear of people perceived as members of a different social group, a connection that some researchers had suspected but for which solid data was lacking. The researchers also found that this fear was diminished in people who had more contact with members of other races, such as those who dated interracially.

To further explore the role of social fear in racial prejudice, a team led by Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg, a psychiatrist at the Central Institute of Mental Health in Mannheim, Germany, examined the attitudes of a group notably lacking it: children with a genetic disorder called Williams syndrome. Caused by the deletion of genes on chromosome 7, Williams syndrome often leads to mild to moderate mental and growth retardation as well as an intense sociability and lack of social fear, especially of strangers. “If I come into a Williams Syndrome Association meeting, 50 kids will crawl all over me and rejoice at seeing me even though they have never met me,” Meyer-Lindenberg says.

Meyer-Lindenberg and his colleagues, cognitive neuroscientists Andreia Santos and Christine Deruelle of the Mediterranean Institute for Cognitive Neuroscience in Marseille, France, gave a standard test of racial and gender attitudes to 10 boys and 10 girls with Williams syndrome. The children, aged 7 to 16 years, were all French Caucasians. In one typical question, children were shown drawings of two boys, one darker skinned and one lighter, and told that one of them had been naughty because he drew pictures on the walls of his house with crayons. They were then asked which of the two boys was naughty. In another, the children were shown pictures of a teenage girl and a teenage boy and asked which one worked at a gas station after school. The children’s responses to the 18 picture pairs were compared with those of a control group of 20 normal children matched for age and sex.

The control group demonstrated racial stereotyping by assigning negative qualities to dark-skinned individuals on an average of 83% of their responses, but the Williams children did so an average of only 64% of the time, the team found. On the other hand, both groups scored more than 90% on sex and gender stereotyping. Thus, social fear contributes to racial stereotyping but not to gender stereotypes, which may be linked to other cognitive processes such as social learning, the team reports online today in Current Biology. The results suggest that interventions designed to reduce social fears might be the best approach to countering racism, says Meyer-Lindberg.

But other researchers caution that alternative explanations for the results should be explored. For example, Williams children might be less susceptible to picking up the prejudices of parents and peers, says Luigi Castelli, a social psychologist at the University of Padua in Italy. Phelps agrees: “I would not immediately attribute this to social fear; ... it could be related to differences in learning ability,” she says. As for why Williams children apparently retain biases about gender but not race, Phelps says that too could be related to learning difficulties. When it comes to race, “They may just have [more] problems learning what the out group is,” she says.