Neural correlates of biased social fear learning and interaction in an intergroup context

Neuroimage. 2015 Nov 1:121:171-83. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2015.07.015. Epub 2015 Jul 10.


Associations linking a fearful experience to a member of a social group other than one's own (out-group) are more resistant to change than corresponding associations to a member of one's own (in-group) (Olsson et al., 2005; Kubota et al., 2012), providing a possible link to discriminative behavior. Using a fear conditioning paradigm, we investigated the neural activity underlying aversive learning biases towards in-group (White) and out-group (Black) members, and their predictive value for discriminatory interactive behavior towards novel virtual members of the racial out-group (n=20). Our results indicate that activity in brain regions previously linked to conditioned fear and perception of individuals belonging to the racial out-groups, or otherwise stigmatized groups, jointly contribute to the expression of race-based biases in learning and behavior. In particular, we found that the amygdala and anterior insula (AI) played key roles in differentiating between in-group and out-group faces both when the faces were paired with an aversive event (acquisition) and when no more shocks were administered (extinction). In addition, functional connectivity between the amygdala and the fusiform gyrus increased during perception of conditioned out-group faces. Moreover, we showed that brain activity in the fear-learning-bias network was related to participants' discriminatory interactions with novel out-group members on a later day. Our findings are the first to identify the neural mechanism of fear learning biases towards out-group members, and its relationship to interactive behavior. Our findings provide important clues towards understanding the mechanisms underlying biases between social groups.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Amygdala / physiology*
  • Brain Mapping / methods*
  • Conditioning, Psychological / physiology*
  • Facial Recognition / physiology*
  • Fear / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Interpersonal Relations*
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Racism*
  • Social Perception*
  • Temporal Lobe / physiology*
  • Young Adult