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Study Questions How 'Tolerant' People Really Feel About Interracial Couples

"I felt like the polls weren’t telling the whole story."

by Sarah Emerson
Aug 19 2016, 1:00pm

Image: Emoji Finger

As the kid of mixed-race parents, intolerance toward interracial couples makes me want to climb on a spaceship, hit ignition, and rocket off into outer space. Less than 50 years ago, the United States still upheld anti-miscegenation laws that made it illegal for people of different races to marry.

I thought things were starting to look better when Pew Research Center published a nationally representative survey in 2012, suggesting that just 11 percent of Americans disapprove of interracial marriages.

But no. According to a new study, recently published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, some people, including those who don't self-identify as racist, are "disgusted" by mixed-race couples on a neurological level. Often, the study says, these people are more likely to associate interracial couples with animals than with other humans.

"I felt like the polls weren't telling the whole story," said lead author Allison Skinner, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Washington's Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences, in a statement.

Skinner remarked that she was disappointed by the lack of research on racial bias, and hoped to probe the systemic issue on a more biological level. With the help of another postdoctoral psychologist, she was able to survey 152 college students in a series of three experiments aimed at expressing how the brain processes racism toward mixed-race couples.

First, participants were asked how they felt about interracial relationships, and whether they'd be open to dating outside of their race. According to the paper, almost all of the students surveyed self-reported high levels of acceptance and low levels of disgust. (It's worth noting that a separate Pew study found that white people aren't great at recognizing racism around them, and potentially within themselves.)

Then, while connected to a device that measures neural activity, 19 of those students were shown romantic photos of 200 interracial and same-race couples. To coax each participant into socially evaluating the images, Skinner and her partner asked the students whether the couples should be included in a future study on relationships.

When the authors examined how participants' brains were reacting to the experiment, they noticed that while looking at photos of mixed-race couples, students showed high levels of activity in their insula, which is an interior region of the brain's cerebral cortex. Previous studies have associated the insula with feelings of disgust, which could imply that interracial relationships somehow activate a disgust response from certain people.

But to test how their feelings toward mixed-race couples would manifest in behavioral ways, one final experiment was conducted. Nearly 200 subjects were asked to associate photos of interracial and same-race couples with silhouettes of either humans or animals. This activity would, theoretically, reveal whether people were likely to dehumanize interracial partners. According to the study's findings, people were quicker to pair photos of interracial couples with animals than with other humans. Wow, okay.

"Some people are still not comfortable with interracial relationships, or at least they're a lot less comfortable than they would appear to be," Skinner added. "Acknowledging these biases is the first step to figuring out why people feel that way and determining what can be done so they won't."

Still, the study left a lot to be desired when it came to its sample size. Less than 200 people were surveyed, and all of them were ostensibly college-age. We also know little about where survey took place, or details on the participants' demographic breakdown. Skinner also acknowledges that the insula doesn't just correlate to feelings of disgust—students could have experienced other reflexes as well.

So, while this isn't hard proof that mixed-race couples are subconsciously "disgusting" to racists, it is a worthwhile avenue for future research. We may not have definitive neurological evidence, but I dare you to argue that racism isn't all round us.