Is racial prejudice bad for your health?
Is racism learned or are we hardwired for it? The question taps into a fundamental concern at the heart of our humanity and is taken up in a series of essays in “Are We Born Racist? New Insights from Neuroscience and Positive Psychology,” edited by Jason Marsh, Rodolpho Mendoza-Denton, and Jeremy Adam Smith and published by Beacon Press. The book explores the psychology of racism, how to overcome prejudice and how to strengthen our multiracial society. Here, Elizabeth Page-Gould, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, explores how racists potentially harm their own health.
By Elizabeth Page-Gould
Can you think of a person or situation that evokes a feeling of your heart pounding in your chest, sweat on your palms, or stiffness in your arms or legs? The specific stimuli that elicit these physiological stress responses are unique to each of us.
Nonetheless, people who are racially biased respond physiologically to rather benign interactions with someone of another race. Add in the fact that chronic stress is reliably related to long-term health and mortality, and you arrive at the logical conclusion: perhaps prejudice is related to long-term health.
Recent research finds that prejudice predicts increases in the hormone, cortisol, when interacting with people of different ethnicities. Cortisol turns fat cells and muscle tissue into glucose for a quick burst of energy, and it induces constriction of the cardiovascular system.
In a life-threatening situation, this stress response could save the day, but most social situations do not demand such an extreme physical response. My colleagues, Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton and Linda Tropp, and I randomly paired White and Latino participants into same- and cross-ethnic pairs. Among cross-ethnic partners, prejudice predicted cortisol increases while the partners took part in an initial friendship-building task. Luckily, this is not the end of the story: the cortisol responses of prejudiced participants subsided over subsequent meetings as closeness developed between cross-ethnic partners. Our results were gathered by testing for an “implicit” or automatic form of prejudice measured with an Implicit Associations Test. (You can assess your own responses to a range of topics from ethnic groups to sports teams at the Project Implicit website.)
Wendy Berry Mendes and her colleagues investigated the question at a deeper level. They induced stress using a public-speaking task while manipulating the racial composition of the audience. They hypothesized that the body would respond to different types of social stressors, so, in addition to cortisol, they measured a hormone, dehydroepiandroster- one-sulphate (DHEA-S). DHEA-S is associated with positive long-term health outcomes, such as tissue repair, cell longevity and increased immunity. In sum, they found that holding egalitarian attitudes goes beyond being not bad for your health to actually being good for health.
It is important to emphasize the logical leap here: We know that prejudice predicts acute hormonal stress responses, and we know that many negative health outcomes occur when these stress hormones are chronically elevated. All the same, the direct connection between prejudice and chronic stress is only presently being investigated. So, while waiting for the data to roll in, we can all place our bets on the plausibility of the hypothesis and see how it plays out.
The take-home message is that stress is bad for you. As in, it is bad for your body as well as your mind. If you let yourself get stressed out by people who are different from you, then you’ll find yourself at a serious disadvantage in an increasingly interconnected, global world. The fun part is that embracing diversity may actually promote health and longevity. Being kind, it seems, is also good for you.
Steven E. Levingston
| October 11, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories: Guest Blogger | Tags: racism psychology; racism health; hardwired for racism; learned racism
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