Societal polarization: psychological and neurobiological approaches
Freitag, 04.06.2021:
13:00 - 14:30

Chair der Sitzung: Bastian Schiller, University of Freiburg
Chair der Sitzung: Grit Hein, Universität Würzburg
Ort: Hormones and emotions

Zusammenfassung der Sitzung

The past decade has been characterized by increasing polarization which recently has sparked global protests in the course of the “Black Lives Matter” movement. One major symptom of this societal polarization is the consolidation of prejudices and stereotypes against individuals from different social groups, and resulting intergroup conflicts with detrimental effects. Reflecting the urgency of the problem, there is an increasing amount of psychological and neuroscience research that strives to uncover the mechanisms that drive societal polarization and to develop approaches that counteract them. Our symposium brings together scientists from four countries (Canada, China, UK, Germany) and five different universities (Alberta, Peking, Bristol, Freiburg, Würzburg) that investigate different aspects of societal polarization related to intergroup processes. In more detail, our symposium provides insights into the neuroendocrinological basis of intergroup conflict (Bastian Schiller), elucidates how neural activities involved in racial categorization affects racial biases in face perception and altruistic decisions (Yuqing Zhou, junior scientist), and discusses cognitive biases and stereotypes in the context of vicarious interracial contact (Susanne Quadflieg). Exploring the promises and limits of intergroup contact further, we will discuss whether and how intergroup toleration affects basic neural signatures and attitudes towards minorities (Kyle Nash), and how neural learning from positive outgroup experiences shape prosocial motivation and the outcome of clinical treatments (Grit Hein). Together, the presentations of the invited experts provide insights into the psychological and neurobiological mechanisms that contribute to societal polarization, show their effect on perception, cognition, and decision-making, and explore approaches that may counteract these effects.


Oxytocin changes behavior and spatio-temporal brain dynamics underlying inter-group conflict in humans

Bastian Schiller1, Gregor Domes2, Markus Heinrichs1

1Department of Psychology, Laboratory for Biological and Personality Psychology, University of Freiburg; 2Department of Psychology, Biological and Clinical Psychology, University of Trier

Inter-group conflicts drive human discrimination, mass migration, and violence, but their psychobiological mechanisms remain largely unknown. In my talk I will present research investigating whether the neuropeptide oxytocin modulates behavior and spatio-temporal brain dynamics in naturalistic inter-group conflict. Eighty-six male members of natural rival social groups received either oxytocin or placebo intranasally. In a decision-making paradigm involving real monetary stakes, participants could sacrifice their own resources to modulate the monetary gains and losses of in- and out-group members. Oxytocin eliminated the reduction in out-group gains – particularly in individuals with low emotional empathy, whereas those given placebo exhibited this negative social behavior. Our spatio-temporal analysis of event-related potentials elicited by outcome valuation revealed that oxytocin replaced a neurophysiological process associated with the negative valuation of out-group gains via a process associated with positive valuation between 200-500ms after outcome presentation. Oxytocin thus seems to modulate inter-group behavior in humans via a specific alteration of valuation-related brain dynamics.

Neural dynamics of racial categorization predicts racial bias in face recognition and altruism

Yuqing Zhou

Peking University, China

The classification of individuals into different racial groups provides a precondition for racial bias in cognition and behaviour, but how the brain enables spontaneous racial categorization is not fully understood. Here using multimodal brain imaging measures, including electroencephalography and magnetoencephalography, we probe the neural dynamics of racial categorization by quantifying the repetition suppression of neural responses to faces of different individuals of each racial group (that is, Asian, black or white). We show that categorization of other-race faces engages early two-stage dynamic activities in neural networks consisting of multiple interactive brain regions. Categorization of same-race faces, however, recruits a different and simple network in a later time window. Dynamic neural activities involved in racial categorization predict racial biases in face recognition and altruistic intention. These results suggest that there are distinct neural dynamics by which the brain sorts people into different racial groups as a social ground for cognition and action.

Promises and perils of vicarious interracial contact

Susanne Quadflieg

University of Bristol, Vereinigtes Königreich

Vicarious contact theory postulates that people’s prejudice against racial outgroups weakens upon witnessing positive inter-racial contact between members of their own and another racial group. At this point, however, it remains uncertain how such inter-racial contact is interpreted and evaluated from a third-person perspective. To overcome this empirical lacuna, the current talk provides both behavioural (Study 1) as well as neuroscientific (Study 2) evidence that Black as well as White observers respond less favourably toward positive third-party contact that involves Black and White individuals rather than solely Black or White individuals. Study 1 uses a sequential priming paradigm to show that participants (regardless of their ethnicity) associate negative concepts more quickly with images of inter-racial than intra-racial contact, but positive concepts more quickly with intra- than interracial contact. Study 2 replicates this finding and complements it by demonstrating that watching inter- compared to intra-racial contact is associated with systematic neural differences in the brain’s mentalizing and social reward networks, indicative of different impression formation strategies for both types of contact. In combination, the data point towards the existence of racial prejudice at the dyadic level. Implications of this finding for vicarious contact theory are discussed.

Intolerant of being tolerant? The impact of intergroup toleration on relative left frontal EEG activity and outgroup attitudes

Kyle Nash1, Kumar Yogeeswaran2, Hongwei Jia2, Levi Adelman3, Maykel Verkuyten3

1University of Alberta, Canada; 2University of Canterbury; 3Utrecht University

Increases in cultural and religious diversity have led to calls for toleration of differences, although it is unclear how toleration impacts affective and attitudinal responses. The current research examines if calling for toleration of Muslim minority practices elicits a backlash against the group amongst those relatively more conservative. We also indexed relative left frontal EEG activity to examine the underlying motivational processes. Non-Muslim participants from New Zealand (N = 172) self-reported their political orientation before being randomly assigned to a toleration condition or a control condition involving reflection about Muslim practices. Participants then evaluated various groups including Muslims while EEG was recorded. Results showed that among those relatively more conservative, toleration produced higher levels of relative left frontal EEG activity, indicating an angry or defensive response, which in turn led to more negative evaluations of Muslims (relative to control participants). However, for those relatively more liberal, toleration had no impact on neuropsychological or attitudinal responses relative to controls. Collectively, these findings suggest that intergroup toleration may backfire amongst those relatively more conservative, undermining its intended purpose.

How learning from outgroups affects prosocial motivation and health

Grit Hein

Universität Würzburg, Deutschland

In globalized societies, contact with individuals from different social groups (outgroup members) are the rule rather than the exception. In my presentation, I will discuss recent evidence on how experiences with outgroup member shape prosocial motivation, and responses to aversive events such as pain. The presented studies use a computational learning framework that allows for modelling the effect of individual outgroup experiences over time. Combining learning models and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) revealed that a relatively small number of unexpected positive experiences with outgroup individuals can increase empathy towards other individuals of the same group. Moreover, unexpected positive effects of outgroup treatment can enhance learned placebo analgesia, reflected by a decrease in subjective and neural responses to pain. Together, the presented results show that classical learning mechanisms can shape outgroup prejudices and intergroup relations, with important consequences for individuals’ well-being and health.