Racial stereotypes impair flexibility of emotional learning

Joseph E. Dunsmoor, Jennifer T. Kubota, Jian Li, Cesar A.O. Coelho, Elizabeth A. Phelps

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Flexibility of associative learning can be revealed by establishing and then reversing cue-outcome discriminations. Here, we used functionalMRI to examine whether neurobehavioral correlates of reversal-learning are impaired inWhite and Asian volunteers when initial learning involves fear-conditioning to a racial out-group. For one group, the picture of a Blackmale was initially paired with shock (threat) and aWhitemale was unpaired (safe). For another group, theWhitemale was a threat and the Blackmale was safe. These associations reversedmidway through the task. Both groups initially discriminated threat fromsafety, as expressed through skin conductance responses (SCR) and activity in the insula, thalamus, midbrain and striatum. After reversal, the group initially conditioned to a Blackmale exhibited impaired reversal of SCRs to the new threat stimulus (Whitemale), and impaired reversals in the striatum, anterior cingulate cortex, midbrain and thalamus. In contrast, the group initially conditioned to aWhitemale showed successful reversal of SCRs and successful reversal in these brain regions toward the new threat. These findings provide new evidence that an aversive experience with a racial out-group member impairs the ability to flexibly and appropriately adjust fear expression towards a new threat in the environment.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbernsw053
Pages (from-to)1363-1373
Number of pages11
JournalSocial cognitive and affective neuroscience
Issue number9
StatePublished - Sep 1 2016


  • Associative learning
  • Extinction
  • Pavlovian fear conditioning
  • Racial attitudes and relations
  • Stereotyping and prejudice

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


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