After having flirted with the idea for over a decade, Donald Trump announced his entrance into the Republican presidential race on June 16th 2015. Already having established himself as a successful entrepreneur and businessman, Trump has leveraged his celebrity status to create a platform for controversial comments relating to race, religion, and gender.
His most famous (or infamous) moments on the trail include, but are not limited to, calling for a deportation plan similar to 1954’s ‘operation wetback’, lobbying for a freeze on all Muslim immigration to the U.S., while not forgetting the memorable time he called prominent FOX news anchor Megyn Kelly, ‘a bimbo’. This incendiary tone has led to a constant barrage of dismissals in kind, with many painting his campaign as intrinsically misogynistic and racist.
But why do we just think of these characteristics as fundamentally evil or morally wrong. Was there any evolutionary substance to why this elaborate exclusion of sex and race exists? Is it possible that racism and sexism could be neurologically predictable, or genetically inheritable? And if we are indeed neurologically wired towards racism, is there anything we can do to change it?
With these questions in mind, Researcher Hikaru Takeuchi looked further into whether sexism could legitimately be said to be hard-wired into the brain. Using sex-role egalitarianism (SRE) questionnaire scores, he found that those who scored low (people holding more stereotypical gender views) tended to have higher regional grey matter density (rGMD) in the anterior part of the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC) and lower density in the right amygdala, something often associated with suicide ideation, depressive tendencies and negative emotions.
Moreover, higher grey matter density in the posterior cingulate cortex has been associated with aggression, competitiveness, and having a contentious interpersonal orientation. These are traits that Trump would arguably rate highly on, and may provide insight into why he often tends to argue, batter, bicker and cause controversies. Takeuchi goes on to more specifically detail the relationship between SRE scores and outward behaviour:
“Thus, lower SRE may have a nature of contention or rivalry over territory between the two sexes. Men who have lower SRE may have this idea because they have to win the competition in the workplace, and to do so, they must expel women from the workplace.”
Perhaps this would explain why Trump called Rosie O’Donnell, a prominent television personality, “crude, rude, obnoxious and dumb.” Researchers might say Trump is exhibiting primal territorial and competitive instincts that in prehistoric ages would be crucial to have in order to fight for scarce resources.
Takeuchi looked into twin studies and found that patterns of political conservatism were only partially manipulated by environment, but more than 50 per cent determined by genetic heritability. Although this may seem to imply that traits of sexism and racism are more or less fixed, the brain is actually quite impressionable. We are constantly changing as we interact with the environment, and therefore more or less “rewiring” as we go. Takeuchi also went on to say that reducing negative emotions could also consequently reduce the likelihood of racist actions; so perhaps people who acted to reduce their neurotic and negative emotions with cognitive behavioural exercises would exhibit fewer of such actions.
Dr. Elizabeth Phelps also demonstrated that there was increased amygdala activation in response to to out-group faces than to in-group faces, which is to say people outside a specific social group as opposed to those within it. They found that the higher the individual scores on the Implicit Association Test (IAT) (which attempts to measure implicit racism), the higher the amygdala activation was seen towards out-group faces. The anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) was established to detect internal conflict between implicit racial bias and conscious non-racial acts. The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) was also found to be integral in making social judgements.
Dr. Phelps’s second experiment showed that if a familiar or admirable face of a black individual was shown to a white participant, their amygdala activation was considerably reduced, findings which possibly indicate that appropriate exposure to different races could reduce neural activation associated with racism. Given that Trump always lived a privileged life, attending schools that were in majority dominated by white, affluent males, perhaps early exposure to different races and gender would rid individuals of stereotypical views. Phelps also went on to say that just having more activated neural responses does not necessarily coincide with inappropriate discriminatory behaviour. We grow and learn to inhibit racial impulses that are instinctively within us given our primal behaviour of preferring in-groups to out-groups. So it’s not that racists have no control over their behaviour, as they can act independently of their neurological instincts.
Kristen M. Knutson also found similar results when finding correlations between high scores on the IAT and neurological correlates. The anteromedial prefrontal cortex (PFC), rostral anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), and the amygdala all activated when people made stereotypical assumptions regarding different races and genders. On the contrary, when making opinions that were not congruent to stereotypes the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) was activated, similarly shown in Phelps’s study. This went on to conclude that the DLPFC being responsible for higher order processes makes conscious effort to be unbiased even if there is underlying bias.
It is often assumed that demonstrating a neurological background to our behaviour implies that it is something that we cannot change. But we give the mind less credit than it deserves. Perhaps we were all born ‘racists’ to prefer identities that aligned with ours and to save the ones that most resemble us. But as time is fluid, so is our mind; it is constantly interacting with the environment and capable of change in kind. Being so impressionable, we can either progress, or in Mr. Trump’s case, regress in the way we think.