A neuroscientist explains how our unconscious anti-Arab biases fuel support for Trump
Arab Woman with cell phone (Shutterstock)

Empirical research has unequivocally shown that most Americans have an implicit racial bias that makes them perceive black males as more threatening than whites. Studies using realistic simulated scenarios have also shown that these implicit biases have significant real world effects that may result in incidents like unjustified shootings of African Americans by police.

While the topic of how racial bias affects the lives of black men has received some media attention recently, there is a similar implicit bias affecting Americans’ perception of Middle Eastern people. It is important that we become aware of all these biases, which are often subconscious, as they have the power to shape our beliefs and overall worldviews. In fact, it is likely that this specific racial bias could be a significant driving force behind Donald Trump’s political ascent, given his highly salient anti-Muslim rhetoric.

The Arab-related implicit bias likely became widespread just after the 9/11 terror attack, which changed America’s perception of Middle Eastern and Muslim men almost overnight. Due to the constant media coverage of the Islamic extremists responsible for the act, the only time many Americans ever saw a Middle Eastern man was on the television in connection with the horrific event. Regardless of whether or not one is actually conscious of the stereotype, the association between terror and men of Arab descent is solidified in the minds and brains of Americans, and may be especially strong in those who have no positive real-life interactions with Muslims or Middle Easterners to weaken the subconscious mental association.

The implicit racial bias whereby Middle Eastern men are automatically perceived as threatening has been a growing research topic in recent years. Empirical studies are helping us understand this bias and how it influences our attention, beliefs, and even political attitudes.

One of the earliest studies to examine the Middle Eastern-related implicit bias was published in 2005 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. In the experiment, researchers showed participants a movie clip that was designed to elicit fear in order to induce what the scientists called a “self-protective motive” prior to a task that involved judging the facial expressions of Arab and White individuals in photos. The results showed that participants who viewed the fear-inducing movie — rather than a neutral movie, which was the control condition — perceived greater anger in the faces of the Arabs, but not Whites. The study showed that when we are experiencing fear, the implicit bias distorts our perception and judgment in racially imbalanced ways. This helps explain why political fear mongering can be so effective.

A 2009 study investigated whether the implicit racial bias resulting from stereotypes about Middle Eastern men actually changes how and what we visually pay attention to in the world.  To test this question, researchers had participants do a computer task that involved responding to targets on a screen using keyboard buttons. Specifically, they were presented with a word associated with terrorism, such as ‘bomb’, followed by a brief display of two faces side-by-side, one White and the other Middle Eastern. Shortly after, a target dot would randomly appear in a location behind one of the faces, and the participant had to quickly indicate what side the target appeared on. The results showed that people with anxiety were quicker to locate targets behind Middle Eastern faces following terrorism-related words, implying that those types of words caused them to look at Arab and not White faces. Even though the effect was only present in those with anxiety, it is clear that many Americans have a subconscious perception of Middle Eastern men as dangerous, which causes them to pay more attention to them when nerves run high.

These racial biases might seem harmless, but they actually run deep, affecting one’s overall worldview and political attitude. A recent study showed that worries over Middle Eastern immigrants moving into one’s neighborhood fuels support for candidates with nationalist messages like Donald Trump. The study included two experiments. The first showed that when participants were given writing exercises designed to trigger existential anxiety and thoughts about death, their support for Donald Trump increased, regardless of political orientation, or whether they even liked Trump. Simply put, it demonstrated that fear fuels support for Trump. The second experiment prompted individuals to think about immigrants moving into the area through writing tasks, which increased thoughts about death and existential anxiety. So in total, the study indirectly showed that a fear of immigrants increases support for confident, patriotic, right wing candidates like Donald Trump, who espouse xenophobic messages.

Although the implicit racial bias that results in a threatening perception of Middle Easterners is largely if not fully subconscious, promoting an awareness of it can help people become cognizant of this deeply ingrained prejudice. By understanding that our fears and stereotypes shape our beliefs and politics, we can become more resistant to propaganda and fear mongering by political candidates that aim to exploit these preconceptions.

Studies have also shown that news stories and articles that portray Muslims and people from the Middle East in a positive light can mitigate these biases. So although we cannot and should not ask the media to refrain from reporting on terrorism and the extremists in the Middle East who are the perpetrators, we can ask that a conscious effort be made to show positive stories about Muslims as well, of which there are many. By doing this, we can make the nation safer and more welcoming for law-abiding American Muslim citizens who are caring and productive members of our society. And at the same time, we can help fight politicians who try to divide us and pit us against one another solely for their own gain.