The Neuroanatomy of Social Stereotyping

Today we recall, celebrate and reflect on the birth and life of the great civil rights leader,

Martin Luther King, Jr. 

Social stereotypes have a neuroanatomical basis, and they can cause as much – or more – suffering than cancer, hunger or physical trauma. The images below represent the biological roots of racism, bigotry, genocide and oppression. By attempting to understand our own brains and biases, we can begin to bridge gaps of social division, nurture compassion for ourselves and others, and do our own little part to promote peace on this planet.

The ventral medial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) (a) is activated

when stereotyping individuals via “person judgements”.

The amygdala (b) is also activated when stereotyping,

as well as the middle temporal gyrus (c) and the supramarginal gyrus (d).

“Acquired during early childhood and reinforced throughout adult life, stereotypes shape thought and action in innumerable ways. In a world of daunting interpersonal complexity, the primary benefit of stereotyping is that it offers apparent insights into the personalities and deeds of others without the cumbersome necessity of getting to know them. For example, whereas women are thought to be nurturing and to be found cooking and gossiping, emotionally repressed men are believed to enjoy repairing cars and guzzling beer. While clearly simplifying the process of person understanding, stereotypical thinking is not without its problems. Through indiscriminate application, stereotyping promotes judgmental inaccuracy, societal inequality, and intergroup conflict.

fMRI images and quote from Quadflieg et al. (2008). Exploring Social Stereotypes. J Cognitive Neuroscience, 21:8, 1560-1570

May we all put forth a greater effort to understand ourselves and each other.

Happy MLK Day!


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