The Internet, social media, and even smart phones open up new avenues for communication. But new research indicates that over the long-term, social texts and Facebook posts of racial bias and rejection is discrimination that affects our thinking, emotional state and patterns of behavior, as well as our physical and mental 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," says psychological scientist and senior researcher Wendy Berry Mendes at the University of California, San Francisco. The study is in the current issue of Psychological Science.
Mendes and her colleagues tested whether people reacted differently when rejected during online social interactions from members of their own racial “in-group” or by another racial “out-group.” They predicted that when people experience the perceived discrimination from social rejection from someone of another race, they showed characteristics of “approach-orientation,” including anger, increased blood flow, greater vigilance, and more risk-taking behavior.
Nearly 100 participants selected an online avatar that matched their race and sex, and then hooked up to sensors that monitored cardiovascular activity. The participants chatted online with two "partners," who responded with negative feedback supplied by researchers. Afterward, those rejected, performed tasks that tested their recall compared to an earlier memory test, as well as their vigilance, and risk-taking.
Those rejected by chat partners of a different race showed increased cardiac output, lower vascular resistance, and lower cortisol (a hormone needed to manage stress,) then the participants rejected by same-race partners. They also showed more anger and a greater sensitivity to rewards, leading them to take greater risks during a gambling test when the potential gain was larger. There was also an increase in vigilance from “emotionally negative information.”
Researchers noted that while vigilance helps people detect danger and respond to stress, it also leads to "false alarms" where people perceive bias in vague situations. Such bias toward emotionally negative feedback is over time, linked to a number of medical conditions including anxiety.
Those experiencing rejection by their own race showed higher cortisol levels, less cardiac output, increased vascular resistance, and impaired memory recall — patterns that when experienced chronically have been linked to accelerated "brain aging," cognitive decline, and early risk for Alzheimer's disease.
"Together, these findings suggest that while social rejection creates strong negative emotions that manifest in changes in the brain and body, the race of the person who rejects you alters the responses to the social rejection," Mendes explains.
Whether the test participants were White or Black, if rejected by a chat partner of a different race, the results were the same, which indicates that being on the receiving end of discrimination is painful regardless of your own racial identity.