Learned fear of people who are different

Some people are predisposed to fearing those whose skin colour is different from their own, in much the same way they are predisposed to fearing snakes and spiders.

Andreas Olsson and colleagues presented participants with two photos, one of a black male face and one of a white male face. When either the black or the white face was consistently presented at the same time as a mild electric shock, the participants soon learned to react more fearfully to that face than they would do normally, as revealed by the sweatiness of their skin. However, how each participant reacted after the face was no longer paired with an electric shock, depended on whether or not the face had the same skin colour as their own. Black American participants continued to show an exaggerated fear response when the white male face had previously been paired with the shock, but not when the black face had (their response returned to normal with a black face), whereas White American participants showed the opposite pattern. This persistence of an exaggerated fear response is what happens after an electric shock is no-longer paired with a photo of a snake or a spider, but not when a shock is no-longer paired with a butterfly or a bird.

“…it is likely that sociocultural learning about the identity and qualities of outgroups is what provides the basis for the greater persistence of fear conditioning involving members of another group”, the authors said.

The researchers found this fear bias towards faces with a different skin colour to one’s own was reduced in participants who’d had more interracial dating experience. “Millenia of natural selection and a lifetime of social learning may predispose humans to fear those who seem different from them; however, developing relationships with these different others may be one factor that weakens this otherwise strong predisposition”, the authors said.

Olsson, A., Ebert, J.P., Banaji, M.R. & Phelps, E.A. (2005). The role of social groups in the persistence of learned fear. Science, 309, 785-787.
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