That racial prejudices lead to poorer mental and physical health outcomes among minorities is well-documented. However, the precise biological and neurological mediators of these relations are decidedly less well understood. Recently, researchers from Pennsylvania and Washington looked at the role played by cortisol in racial exclusion and stress. Their study is published in the Journal of Social Psychology.
The authors sought to fill a gap in the present literature, which has thus far placed a greater emphasis on active forms of racial discrimination as compared to more “passive” forms like exclusion. This is the case despite the fact that racial exclusion and avoidance behaviors in general may be more frequently exercised than other, more obvious forms of discrimination.
In the study, 276 Black/African American emerging-adults (roughly half female, aged 21 years on average) were randomly assigned to two conditions in a game of Cyberball. Cyberball is a mock game in which participants throw a virtual ball back and forth with other “players” (actually a pre-programmed series of actions).
In the exclusion condition, individuals were thrown the ball twice at the start of the game, and then never again. In the inclusion condition, they received the ball roughly 25% of the time. Their photo was taken by researchers, ostensibly to be shared with the “other players”, whose photos were also provided: all White, same-gender individuals aged 18 to 25. Exclusion was thus understood by participants in racial terms, and this was verified by later self-reports.
The results of the study demonstrate, first of all, that individuals who experienced exclusion demonstrated more negative affect after the game and, importantly, significantly reduced perceived control. In addition, in agreement with the researchers’ hypothesis, individuals in the exclusion group demonstrated greater cortisol output.
Increased cortisol has been linked to many of the deleterious effects of stress, and particularly that associated with racial prejudice. One of the most important novel findings of the study was that reduced perceived control mediated the relation between racial exclusion and cortisol release in a casual fashion. This is the case even in more subtle—if no less keenly felt—instances of racial discrimination, like exclusion.
The authors suggest that it may be the fact that perceived control is a fundamental need of humans—as opposed to the merely painful aspects of negative affect—may be what elicits this release of cortisol, a typical response to danger, but which can have serious negative consequences if sustained.
Of the many forms of racial discrimination, social exclusion is the most frequently reported, probably because it is a more subtle form of discrimination, which actors, in some cases, may not even consciously realize they engage in. Regardless of intentionality, however, it is a major contributor to the stresses experienced by racial minorities and specifically Black individuals.
Research like the present study will help us to better understand the biological and psychological pathways by which prejudice affects health, and hopefully lead to more effective countermeasures, including, of course, modification of behavior at the prejudicial source.
The study, “Racial exclusion causes acute cortisol release among emerging-adult African Americans: The role of reduced perceived control“, was authored by Laurel M. Peterson, Michelle L. Stock, Janet Monroe, Brianne K. Molloy-Paolillo, and Sharon F. Lambert.