People are not as accepting of marriages between people of different races as many claim to be, new research suggests.
Between 1980 and 2010 the number of interracial marriages doubled in the United States and they now make up 15 per cent of all marriages. In a 2012 Pew Research poll only 11 per cent of participants said they disapproved of such unions.
However Allison Skinner, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Washington, thought that opinion polls on the subject “weren’t telling the whole story”. To test this idea, she and a team of researchers invited college students to take part in a series of experiments.
The first was a simple survey. More than 150 participants were asked questions about their attitudes towards interracial relationships and how willing they would be to have one themselves. Perhaps unsurprisingly, researchers found high levels of acceptance in the answers given.
Secondly, 19 students were shown images of weddings and engagements while their brain activity was monitored. They were then asked whether the couples in the images should be included in further studies about marriage and relationships. These questions were designed to make the participants evaluate each couple socially.
In this test researchers noted the activity in the ‘insula’ when people discussed interracial couples. The insula is the part of the brain associated with feelings and perception of disgust. So while people may consciously say they are fine with such relationships, many still have very negative feelings towards them. For many of the participants, “viewing images of interracial couples evokes disgust at a neural level” Skinner explained.
Extraordinarily, another test of more than 200 students revealed that they more readily associated interracial couples with images of animal silhouettes. By contrast, participants associated same race relationships with images of human silhouettes. Researchers said the implication was that they were quicker to dehumanise people in a relationship with someone from a different race.
The study seems to suggest that many people are “still not comfortable with interracial relationships” despite what they may say publicly, Skinner concluded. Admitting these biases exist is “the first step to figuring out why people feel that way and determining what can be done so they won’t”.