Economic scarcity shifts perception, leads to discrimination

A downturn looms and a business manager must decide which employees to let go, or how to distribute smaller year-end bonuses. 

In such scenarios, research has shown that black employees are likely to suffer disproportionate losses in jobs and compensation. 

A new Cornell study reveals how that discrimination may start – faster than the blink of an eye – with subtle shifts in the way white decision-makers see minorities during periods of economic scarcity. 

“Scarcity mindsets can really exacerbate discrimination,” said Amy Krosch, assistant professor of psychology in the College of Arts and Sciences. “We show that tiny shifts in the processing of minority group  under scarcity could have downstream consequences for inequality.” 

Krosch and David Amodio, associate professor of psychology and neural science at New York University, co-authored findings published in the November issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 

Their study, “Scarcity Disrupts the Neural Encoding of Black Faces: A Socioperceptual Pathway to Discrimination,” funded by the National Science Foundation, examined brain activity associated with the visual processing of faces and with valuation decisions. 

In a first experiment, 71 undergraduate psychology students from a private university (none identifying as black or African American) were asked to look at pictures of white and black male faces on a screen. They then awarded each person up to $10 based on “subtle perceptions of recipients’ deservingness.” 

A control group was told $10 was the most that anyone could receive. But members of the experimental group believed they were randomly assigned only $10 out of a possible $100 to give away each time – a difference that imparted a sense of scarcity. 

“Even though participants have the exact same amount of money across the two conditions, that $10 feels very different,” Krosch said. 

Scalp electrodes measured the time each study participant took to perceive recipients distinctly as human faces, a subconscious process linked to activity in the fusiform gyrus that is known to take just 170 milliseconds, or less than two-tenths of a second. 

Within the control group, test subjects took about the same amount of time to process faces of either race, and distributed money to them evenly. 

But in the group that perceived resources as scarce, participants took “significantly longer” to process black faces than white faces on average, the study found. The researchers also showed that these perceptual delays were related to anti-black bias, in which participants allocated less money to black faces. 

“It’s taking them longer to see a black face as a face, and the extent to which that’s happening then predicts how much they discriminate against that black individual,” Krosch said. 

Was this “impaired” visual processing of black faces linked to a devaluation of faces, and then to biased behavior? To probe those questions more precisely, Krosch’s team ran a second set of experiments that imaged brain activity. 

Thirty white undergraduate psychology students completed two blocks of trials, repeating the first experiment’s control and scarcity scenarios. This time, their neural activity was assessed using functional magnetic resonance imaging scanners. 

Again, the control group processed faces and distributed money similarly for both races. And again, subjects feeling a sense of scarcity on average processed black faces more slowly and less thoroughly, indicated by reduced fusiform gyrus activity. 

But the scans revealed something more: dampened activity in the striatum, a brain region involved in valuation and reward processing. That suggested, Krosch said, that the test subjects may have devalued black faces they saw as “less face-like” or, in a sense, less human. And dampened fusiform and striatum activity correlated to less money given to black recipients. 

“This suggests that the difference in perceptual processing leads to behavioral biases because it gives rise to devaluation,” Krosch said. 

In previous research, Krosch and colleagues found that scarcity can prompt more deliberate racial bias. The new study, she said, reveals a surprising subconscious mechanism that might allow a white manager to justify discrimination by actually seeing black employees differently – and as less valuable – in times of economic stress. 

“People are likely not aware of these perceptual biases, but we think that implicitly people might see faces in this way to justify giving them less,” Krosch said. “It’s easier to behave badly toward people that you’re not seeing as fully human.” 

This story originally appeared in the Cornell Chronicle.

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