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Lasana Harris interview: How your brain is conditioned for prejudice

We are more aware of how “unconscious” biases work than ever before, says neuroscientist Lasana Harris – and we can use our conscious brains to override them

Humans



26 August 2020

WHY are we prejudiced? What happens in our brains when we make assumptions about people who look or speak differently to us? As movements such as Black Lives Matter work to expose the systemic racism in the US and Europe, such questions are taking on new and long overdue urgency. If we are to overcome our biases, we need to understand their neural and psychological roots.

Lasana Harris, a neuroscientist and experimental psychologist at University College London, is among those striving for such an understanding. His research focuses on how we think about other people’s minds, known as social cognition, and more specifically on how we perceive others. Working with Susan Fiske at Princeton University, his research on the brain mechanisms underlying dehumanisation has revealed the surprising ease with which we can stop ourselves from having empathy for the plights of others.

Such insights have informed his thinking on racism, too. Harris views what many people call unconscious bias as an inevitable result of the associations we learn and the way our brains react to perceived threats. Rather than something we engage in unconsciously, he argues that it is something we know we are doing but struggle to control.

Here he tells New Scientist why societies condition people to be prejudiced and what the science says we can do about it.

Daniel Cossins: Dehumanisation is a horrifying word and yet your work suggests it is something we all do. Why is that?

Lasana Harris: Firstly, if I want to do something to another human being that is something I don’t typically like doing to human beings, then I’m …