Investigating Prejudice Amidst Demographic Changes

The main goal of SIM lab is to investigate the neural and physiological factors that underlie social interaction and motivation in human beings. For this summer specifically, we are researching interracial interactions and how neural and physiological responses may vary when someone interacts with someone else of the same race, versus of another race. As a place of science, our main goal is to collect empirical data; meanwhile, individually we all hope that the information we find will be used to further the dialogue about prejudice and social attitudes and lead to a more egalitarian society.


As mentioned, our main strategy is to be as objective as possible when screening participants, collecting data, and analyzing data. We try our best to ensure that every participant that enters our lab has the same experience, and if anything should vary we take detailed notes. The screening process for me has been especially informative, because it highlights just how fluid the construct of racial identity truly is.

(credit: national geographic, Visualizing Race, Identity, and Change)

When screening a prospective participant, I have to ask them directly about their race, and there is a lot of uncertainty at times. For example, take a person who has one Caucasian parent and one African-American parent. Is this person white or black? Has their lived experience been more similar to a white person in America, or a black person? Factors like appearance and geographical location greatly inform how this individual has experienced him or herself, as well as the world around them. Moreover, how has this individual’s perception of their “in” and “out” group been affected by their biracial identity? There are so many confounding variables that factor into how someone socially interacts, and it is impossible to truly control for all of them, but we try out best.


The 2015 U.S. census predicts that by 2044 more than half of the U.S. population will belong to a minority group. That is a huge demographic change in a very short amount of time. It is impossible to predict what this sort of demographic shift will mean for America, but it makes it all the more important to be studying how people interact across race, and how social identity shapes human behavior. I hope that as our society becomes more diversified and mixed, social constructs such as race and ethnicity will become less important and less impactful in daily life.

(2015 U.S. Census)

For us, here at the lab, evidence of prejudice and attitude changes comes in the form of anonymous data. Individual participants are turned into numbers in a data system. The data that we collect now can ideally be used as a reference and comparison point in the years to come. Nevertheless, it is exciting to know that the data we are collecting is impactful and meaningful, both in this moment and also for future research.

Empathy vs. Dehumanization

The dichotomy between empathy and dehumanization is ever-present in our daily lives. We are faced with daily decisions about to what degree we should care about a certain social issue, be it the decision to give money to a beggar, to share an important article, to join a protest, to donate… the list goes on. There is no dearth of social injustices in the world that need attention and support, and in the age of information overload it becomes emotionally draining to pay attention to everything; so, human beings naturally compartmentalize the world around them into neat categories with emotional tags attached.

(Credit: Graphic artist Yanko Tsvetkov, a world map according to President Trump’s prejudices)

For example, one may associate homelessness with drug addiction, and they associate drug addiction with disgust or repulsion, so that when they encounter a beggar they are not compelled to give money because a.) They have a pre-existing association with disgust, and b.) They cognitively justify the emotion by thinking something like “well, they will just use the money for drugs so they are undeserving.” It’s these same kind of cognitive-emotional snap judgments that makes black people much more likely to be stopped, shot, and killed by police officers than white or Hispanic people.  And it’s the same reason why most of the western world is rejecting Muslim refugees. People make snap decisions about who deserves their empathy, and whom they can discriminate and dehumanize. In psychology, these delineations often fall into “in-group” categorization or “out-group” categorization.

When discussing prejudice and discrimination, we like to talk about the socio-economic effects, the emotional toll, the institutional factors; how does prejudice affect people in daily life? As a middle-eastern American living in post 9/11 America, prejudice has been a felt experience for me, as well as something I have studied in various academic settings. Now, I get to investigate the science behind prejudice. There are real neural and physiological differences in the brain of someone who is prejudiced vs. someone who is not, and that is fascinating to me.


A lot of what we are researching in the lab is how does brain activity reflect this difference between ‘in’ and ‘out’ group interactions? How does your brain respond to someone it considers a member of “us” versus a member of “them?” And furthermore, how does this affect whether or not you feel empathy towards another person?

The Neuropsychology of Social Justice

In neuropsychology, there are a few categories of subjects that a lot of researchers are hesitant to explore because of their complicated and messy nature. Empathy and social interaction are two such subjects, and I am spending my summer investigating these phenomena in human behavior at the Social Interaction and Motivation (SIM) Lab at Brandeis University. We are exploring the physiological and neurological processes that underlie how human beings interact, connect and empathize with one another. More specifically, we are investigating what are fundamental neurological and physiological differences that occur when someone interacts with a person of their “in-group” (same race) versus a person of an “out-group” (other race).

Because it is an ongoing experiment I cannot share too many specifics; however, the experiment we are currently running involves inviting in Boston-area community members and asking them to complete a series of surveys and tasks while we record their brain activity using electroencephalography (EEG). Participants meet each other and are asked to share personal experiences, as well as complete a few tasks together. Specifically we are interesting in recording from pre-motor neurons, looking for a phenomenon called “motor resonance.” Without boring you with the nitty-gritty science of it, this phenomenon of motor resonance is thought to be the neural underpinning for human empathy.

If you’re interested in learning more of the science and theory here is a link to some useful background information. 

What does this have to do with social justice? Well, by investigating social interactions we are hoping to find some valuable answers to the mystery of human empathy. Empathy has become an increasingly important skill in today’s social and political climate, and I hope that by better understanding the neurological and physiological events of empathic connection (or lack thereof) we can apply this new knowledge to social justice movements. Here at the lab, we want to understand what facilitates empathy with some groups of people, while others are discriminated against and even sometimes dehumanized.

There has been previous research into the neuroscience of prejudice and intergroup relations, and the experiment we are running this summer hopes to build on the existing literature.

Here is another link about the neuroscience of prejudice and intergroup relations

As a research assistant, the majority of my job is to help run the actual experiment. This involves greeting participants, getting them settled into the lab, preparing their EEG cap, and setting up tasks. This first month especially has been a lot of learning protocol, but we are now running the study a few times a week. When I am not running the study, I am often helping graduate students with their research or conducting literature reviews.

This is me, interacting with an EEG mannequin. We use these to attach all the electrodes to the cap before we place it on the participant. 

Before the summer ends, I really hope to have a better scope into how scientific discovery can alongside with social movements. In social neuropsychology, a lot of the research on prejudice and bias (alongside social interaction) provides deep and sometimes dark insight into human social behavior. It does not simply suffice to be aware of these discoveries; the real challenge lies in how do we, as researchers and scientists, get this information out to the public in a way that is useful and constructive.