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Guilt Edged Science

Guilt Edged Science

By Neal Anthwal

If you’ll excuse the slightly florid language for a moment; guilt is a terrible, terrible emotion. From the initial pang of sorrow, it grows into a monster of pure self-loathing. Like Lady Macbeth, you can’t rid yourself of the feeling no matter how hard you try. It feeds upon your being until it consumes your very essence.

Why we feel this most devastating of emotions is of great interest to psychologists. Do we feel guilt to ensure we don't repeat unacceptable behaviour or is it to ensure we keep within a group’s moral standards?

David Amodio of New York University believes there’s a bit of both involved. Guilt initially serves the more punitive function before leading to the latter, socially positive, one.

So to test his hypothesis he accused a load of perfectly nice people of being racist.

What fun psychologists must have. As someone with brown skin and a slight misanthropic streak, I’ve spent many a happy hour accusing people of being prejudiced just to see their reaction. Amodio and his colleagues have done just the same thing; they were just a little more scientific about it.

They didn’t simply insult people they’d just met in the pub, instead they hooked the test volunteers up to an EEG, which measures electrical activity in the brain, and then showed them pictures of various faces of different racial groups. The volunteers were subsequently given scores that they were told were read outs from the EEG indicating positive or negative reactions to the Black, White and Asian faces. Only they weren’t. The scores were randomly generated. Unsurprisingly real EEGs indicated that those volunteers who were told they had responded negatively to Black faces felt pretty guilty.

The subjects were then given a group of headlines to read, amongst which were self-help phrases such as Improving your Interracial Interactions, 10 Ways to Reduce Prejudice in Everyday Life, and Ways to Eliminate your own Racism in the New Millennium. Those subjects who were told that they were racist showed an increase in brain activity on the left side of the frontal cortex – a region associated with motivation. Amodio’s hypothesis had been confirmed.

So it seems that calling people racist, whether they are or not, is informative as well as great fun. One thing is worrying me about this study though; I can find no indication that they ever told the volunteers what they were really up to. I wouldn’t like to think that there are now people all over New York who suddenly feel really awkward speaking to their Black friends and colleagues, believing themselves to be closet racists. Maybe they’ll read the 10 Ways to Reduce Prejudice in Everyday Life and it will all be fine.

Get more from Neal or psyche yourself out with these links:

- Cool - Man vs woman. Planet vs planet
- Interesting - Why do we laugh?
- Funny - On the finding of lost things
- Bizarre - Restless leg syndrome isn't a fake

You
could even try joining our Facebook group.

Image: Kevin Rohr


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15 May 2011
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