New research shows that when people experience discrimination, they respond with a pattern of thoughts, behaviors, and physiological responses that may adversely affect their mental and physical health.
“Psychological factors, like discrimination, have been suggested as part of the causal mechanisms that explain how discrimination gets ‘under the skin’ to affect health,” said psychological scientist and senior researcher Wendy Berry Mendes, Ph.D., of the University of California, San Francisco.
“We wanted to explore the behavioral consequences that follow experiences of discrimination to better understand these mechanisms.”
Based on previous research, Mendes and her colleagues hypothesized that people would react differently depending on whether they were rejected by members of their own group or by members of another group.
They predicted that people who experienced perceived discrimination — rejection from someone of another race — would show responses such as anger, increased blood flow, greater vigilance and more risk-taking behavior.
The researchers recruited 91 participants to take part in a study investigating social interactions and online communication. The participants completed an initial memory task and selected an online avatar that matched their race and sex. They also provided a saliva sample and were hooked up to sensors that monitored cardiovascular activity.
The participants were told that they would be communicating with two “partners” over an online chat program, giving a speech and taking part in a discussion as the partners provided feedback via chat.
In reality, the partners’ responses were controlled by research assistants in another room and their feedback was adapted from a list of negative statements that the research assistants typed in real time.
Afterward, the participants provided another saliva sample and performed cognitive tasks that measured their recall from the earlier memory test, their vigilance, and their risk-taking.
The participants who were rejected by partners of a different race showed increased cardiac output, lower vascular resistance, and lower cortisol reactivity than participants rejected by same-race partners, according to the researchers, who added that they also showed more anger.
The researchers note that these findings are consistent with previous research demonstrating that anger, not shame, is the dominant emotional response following experiences of racial bias.
Participants rejected by partners of another race also showed greater sensitivity to rewards, leading them to engage in riskier behavior on a gambling task when the potential gain was greater, the researchers report.
The participants who experienced this cross-race rejection also showed increased vigilance for emotionally negative information, according to the researchers.
While vigilance can help individuals detect danger and respond to stressors, it can also lead to “false alarms” in which people detect bias in ambiguous situations, noted the researchers. They said this kind of bias for emotionally negative information has been linked to anxiety and a host of clinical conditions.
As the researchers expected, same-race rejection was associated with a different pattern of physiological and cognitive responses.
Participants who were rejected by members of their own race showed greater cortisol increases, less efficient cardiac output, increased vascular resistance, and impaired memory recall — a pattern of physiological reactivity that, when experienced chronically and excessively, has been linked to accelerated brain aging, cognitive decline, and early risk for Alzheimer’s disease, the researchers said.
“Together, these findings suggest that while social rejection creates strong negative emotions that are manifested in changes in the brain and body, the race of the person who rejects you alters the responses to social rejection,” Mendes said.
The researcher said she and her colleagues plan to continue this line of research by examining how discrimination might influence various real-world behaviors, such as eating, sleeping, driving and how people attend to health messages.
The results from the study are reported in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.