Nav: Home

Racial bias in a heartbeat: How signals from the heart shape snap judgements about threat

January 17, 2017

Our heartbeat can increase pre-existing racial biases when we face a potential threat, according to new research published in Nature Communications. In particular, participants were likely to misperceive a situation involving a Black person as life-threatening, when experienced during a heartbeat rather than between heartbeats. This could have important implications in tackling the high number of shootings of unarmed Black people.

The research, conducted by scientists at Royal Holloway, University of London, working with Brighton and Sussex Medical School (BSMS), could lead to the development of new approaches to responding to threatening situations.

Gun or phone? A potentially fatal mistake

Participants of the experiment saw pictures that depicted Black or White individuals holding either a gun or mobile phone. It was found that when the image was flashed at them during the heartbeat, as opposed to between heartbeats, they were approximately 10% more likely to perceive the object as a gun when it was held by a Black person.

Professor Tsakiris, from the Department of Psychology at Royal Holloway, explained, "There is much existing evidence to show that people are more likely to misidentify harmless objects as weapons when held by Black people. Recent events have brought this bias to the fore, where Black Americans are more than twice as likely as White Americans to be killed during encounters with the police.

"The fact this bias exists is well documented, but until now we haven't understood how our heart may influence our head when it comes to perceiving threat in this situation. Bodily arousal plays a significant part in how our brain interprets a situation, and the decisions we subsequently take."

Snap decisions in a heartbeat

The study extends previous research from co-authors Professor Critchley and Dr Garfinkel from BSMS, which identified how on each heartbeat (known as cardiac systole), the heart fires powerful signals to the brain. Between heartbeats (cardiac diastole), these signals are silent. This study shows that the combination of this firing of signals, along with concurrent presentation of potential threat, increases chances that even a non-threat will be perceived as threatening.

Dr Azevedo, also from Royal Holloway, continued, "While our study specifically looked at the bias against Black individuals, that so often in real life has tragic consequences, it is entirely possible that this could apply in other situations. When physically and emotionally aroused - as in a tense situation, faster, stronger heartbeats may lead to greater likelihood of perceiving threat where there is none and making an error in judgement".

Looking to the future

In particular, the study has implications on how to tackle police shootings. Dr Garfinkel, from BSMS, said: "This research has important implications for understanding racially based behavior. We can use it to think about ways to target this heart-brain communication to reduce the tragedies caused by racial bias."

University of Sussex

Related Brain Articles:

Study describes changes to structural brain networks after radiotherapy for brain tumors
Researchers compared the thickness of brain cortex in patients with brain tumors before and after radiation therapy was applied and found significant dose-dependent changes in the structural properties of cortical neural networks, at both the local and global level.
Blue Brain team discovers a multi-dimensional universe in brain networks
Using a sophisticated type of mathematics in a way that it has never been used before in neuroscience, a team from the Blue Brain Project has uncovered a universe of multi-dimensional geometrical structures and spaces within the networks of the brain.
New brain mapping tool produces higher resolution data during brain surgery
Researchers have developed a new device to map the brain during surgery and distinguish between healthy and diseased tissues.
Newborn baby brain scans will help scientists track brain development
Scientists have today published ground-breaking scans of newborn babies' brains which researchers from all over the world can download and use to study how the human brain develops.
New test may quickly identify mild traumatic brain injury with underlying brain damage
A new test using peripheral vision reaction time could lead to earlier diagnosis and more effective treatment of mild traumatic brain injury, often referred to as a concussion.
More Brain News and Brain Current Events

Best Science Podcasts 2019

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2019. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Erasing The Stigma
Many of us either cope with mental illness or know someone who does. But we still have a hard time talking about it. This hour, TED speakers explore ways to push past — and even erase — the stigma. Guests include musician and comedian Jordan Raskopoulos, neuroscientist and psychiatrist Thomas Insel, psychiatrist Dixon Chibanda, anxiety and depression researcher Olivia Remes, and entrepreneur Sangu Delle.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#537 Science Journalism, Hold the Hype
Everyone's seen a piece of science getting over-exaggerated in the media. Most people would be quick to blame journalists and big media for getting in wrong. In many cases, you'd be right. But there's other sources of hype in science journalism. and one of them can be found in the humble, and little-known press release. We're talking with Chris Chambers about doing science about science journalism, and where the hype creeps in. Related links: The association between exaggeration in health related science news and academic press releases: retrospective observational study Claims of causality in health news: a randomised trial This...