Campus & Community

Getting to fear you

2 min read

Race drives persistence of fear

Researchers showed some 20 young black and white women and men pictures of a snake and a spider, followed by pictures of a bird and a butterfly. Humans, apes, and monkeys have a harder time shaking off a learned fear of snakes than of butterflies. Would humans demonstrate the same difference of feeling for people of a difference race who they perceived as a threat? To make a long story short – yes.

All this goes to help determine if fear of outsiders is inborn or acquired by experience. Is biology to blame, or is it an acquired dislike?

In the next part of the experiment, 37 black men and women and 36 whites were shown pictures of two frightening black and two frightening white male faces. Male faces were used because they are considered more intimidating than females.

Following that, everyone received a mild electric shock along with a showing of one of the white and one of the black faces. Finally, the subjects viewed all the faces without the discomfort of an electric jolt. The question to answer was whether blacks would show greater fear of intimidating white faces than of threatening black faces, and vice versa.

Psychologists use a time-tested way to measure fear – how much someone sweats. Fear opens the pores of sweat glands in the skin more than neutral emotions.

You may have guessed the result. Fear of the face from the other race persisted longer than fear from the face of the same race. Both found it easier to overcome fears of faces of their own race.

Although the study did not directly speak to dread of terrorists of the same and other races directly, it is suggestive. “The greater persistence of fear to members of other groups suggests that we may persist in our fear of acts of terrorism committed by those who are different than us,” says Mahzarin Banaji, a professor of psychology at Harvard who participated in the research. “So, an unknown Muslim terrorist may provoke a greater persistence of fear than, say, Timothy McVeigh (the Oklahoma bomber) may have in Americans.”