Racial stigmatization may change the brain

Racial stigmatization may change the brain

Written by Robby Berman on July 13, 2020 — Fact checked by Mary Cooke, Ph.D.

A study looks at the negative impact of stereotyping on personal motivation.


Share on PinterestNew research examines the effect of racial stigmatization on the brain.

It may be that the United States is confronting its long history of racism and discrimination as never before. For many people in the U.S., there is a growing recognition that people of color and those belonging to marginalized groups are confronted on a daily basis with a society that undermines them.

A new study from the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) suggests that for those on the receiving end of such discriminatory attitudes, dealing with negative stigmatization may actually alter how the brain functions.

In the new UCSB study, exposure to negative stereotyping changed the behavior of the subcortical nucleus accumbens, a brain area associated with the anticipation of reward and punishment.

According to one of the study’s authors, social psychologist Kyle Ratner, “What we’re seeing today is a close examination of the hardships and indignities that people have faced for a very long time because of their race and ethnicity.”

“It is clear that people who belong to historically marginalized groups in the U.S. contend with burdensome stressors on top of the everyday stressors that members of nondisadvantaged groups experience. For instance, there is the trauma of overt racism, stigmatizing portrayals in the media and popular culture, and systemic discrimination that leads to disadvantages in many domains of life, from employment and education to healthcare and housing to the legal system.”

— Kyle Ratner, UCSB

The paper features in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.

The damaging power of stereotyping

Ratner and his colleagues decided to investigate the effect of negative stereotyping on brain processing in Latinx UCSB students, specifically Mexican American students. In their paper, the authors note that Mexican American people represent 63% of the U.S. Latinx population.

Ratner has done previous work on the fatiguing, depression-inducing effects of life stressors. “In work I was involved in over a decade ago,” he recalls, “we showed that life stress can be associated with anhedonia, which is a blunted sensitivity to positive and rewarding information, such as winning money.” It can be the anticipation of reward that motivates an individual to persist in the face of adversities.

Says Ratner, “If you’re not sensitive to the rewarding things in life, you’re basically left being sensitive to all the frustrating things in life, without that positive buffer. And that’s one route to depression.”

While other research has reported that exposure to stigma and discrimination can cause anger, racing thoughts, and even high arousal, Ratner is more interested in its exhausting effect on those who experience it. He notes that it can generate feelings of “oh, not again,” or “I’m so tired of this.”

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