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THE SCIENCE BEHIND BIAS

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UD professor Jennifer Kubota delivers a talk on the neuroscience of racial bias

Photograph of Jennifer Kubota

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​​​UD professor Jennifer Kubota delivered a talk on the neuroscience of racial bias at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.​

“From a young age, we are sponges soaking up information from our environment," said University of Delaware Professor Jennifer Kubota. “It is these cultural associations about groups that overtime become ingrained in our minds. When we encounter someone, we spontaneously bring these associations to mind."

Kubota explained that we all do it, even when we mean well. For example, if asked, could you quickly name a common stereotype about a specific racial group? Most people can. What's more, there is a high degree of consensus in that many of us would identify the same stereotypes.

Kubota's research uses neuroscience to uncover the roots and the expression of racial bias. 

Kubota recently delivered a talk on her research entitled “Neuroscience of Implicit Bias" at a multiday, virtual workshop hosted by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. To explore the scientific basis of implicit bias, its prevalence and impact, and its implications for policy and law, the workshop, “The Science of Implicit Bias: Implications for Law and Policy," brought together leading experts and primarily focused on racial bias.

“You can think about implicit associations like mental shortcuts," said Kubota, who is an assistant professor in UD's Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences and Political Science and International Relations and the co-director of the Impression Formation Social Neuroscience Lab. “When we encounter a group member, we quickly categorize them and then activate a host of associations about them based on their racial group or other perceived identities. Now, for objects these mental shortcuts are great. When we encounter ice cream, we know what to expect, whether we like it, and how to eat it. However, when we are talking about social groups these shortcuts come with high costs, as stereotypes and prejudices can be inaccurate and extremely harmful."

These mental shortcuts can come to mind before we are aware of them or have time to reflect upon them, Kubota explained. This is what makes them implicit, and this is where the tools of neuroscience are especially valuable because we might not always realize we are categorizing someone. And sometimes, even if we are aware of our own bias, we may be reluctant to report it.

“Neuroscience allows us a way to directly and rigorously interrogate how we learn and use stereotypes and prejudices, both those that are implicit as well as explicit," Kubota said. “Neuroscience also allows us to measure implicit processes that can impact how we think, feel, and behave towards marginalized individuals in real time without having to ask people directly to reflect on how they think and feel."

Kubota's research explores how we achieve equity in intergroup relations. She examines how we form impressions of marginalized individuals or those who are different from us; how those impressions influence our thoughts, feelings, and decisions; and how we may intervene to achieve parity or improve relations. As a social neuroscientist, her research crosses disciplinary boundaries, bridging psychology, neuroscience, and decision-making with the goal of understanding real-world social change.

“It was a great honor to be invited to participate in this workshop and share this science with the public and other scholars working on this topic from other disciplines," Kubota said. “The question becomes: How do we foster equity and inclusion and mitigate racial bias across spheres of society? Obviously, this is a hugely complex question, which involves thinking about structures as well as individuals and groups and the bringing together of interdisciplinary teams, which was the aim of the workshop. Working together, scholars may be able to gain traction on how we might intervene."

While her work primarily focuses on racial groups, Kubota is also interested in how we can mitigate discrimination for marginalized individuals from various social groups, like, for example, gender and status.

“Neuroscience is just one tool; a tool that can help us understand more about how this happens," Kubota said. “I hope that by using this tool, I can help people better understand bias and how we might effectively intervene."​

Article by Donette Plaisance

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