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Alcohol and Racial Bias

A visit with Bruce Bartholow, Associate Professor, Department of Psychological Sciences

By Brittany Barr
Published: - Topics: social psychology psychology research social behavior behavior

Ask Bruce Bartholow about his current research projects, and the associate professor of psychology at the University of Missouri-Columbia will likely direct your attention to the large whiteboard mounted on his office wall. Crowded with names of collaborators and topics ranging from alcohol and race bias to video games and aggression, this board reveals the breadth of Bartholow’s research.

Though he started college as a music major, Bartholow quickly discovered that he “didn’t really like the nitty-gritty of studying music.” Instead, he found that he was "really curious about what makes people tick.” This curiosity led him to social psychology, which in turn brought him to his current research. “I’ve always been interested in understanding factors that influence how people think and behave toward others, especially others who are not like themselves,” he explains.

In recent years, this core interest has merged with another line of his work that focuses on understanding the effects of alcohol on thought and behavior. Funding from the University of Missouri Research Board enabled Bartholow to measure how alcohol influences the expression of race bias. The study involved three participant groups: one that consumed alcohol up to the legal limit, one that consumed a placebo, and one that knowingly drank a non-alcoholic beverage. These participant groups then completed a reaction-time task in which they were shown a succession of white and black faces followed swiftly by photos of handguns or tools. Their job was to indicate, as quickly as possible with the push of a button, whether each object was a gun or a tool.

This deceptively simple task, Bartholow observes, reveals unconscious racial bias: “people make more errors when the object is unexpected on the basis of racial stereotypes.” For example, since stereotypes mark African-American men as violent, “subjects are faster and more accurate to respond to the handgun if it follows a black face as compared to a white face.” Even more interestingly, especially in light of high-profile cases in which police have shot unarmed African-American men whom they mistakenly believed were holding or reaching for guns, subjects are much more likely to erroneously categorize tools as guns following black compared to white faces.

Using electrodes placed on participants’ scalps, Bartholow measured brain activity related to processing these types of errors. He found that those in the placebo group had a more intense brain response to their errors than subjects in the alcohol condition, while the control group fell right in the middle. This result is significant because “if you have a large brain response to making an error on a given trial, this increases the chances that your subsequent responses will be correct,” he explains. “Following an error, the subjects in the placebo group slowed down and were more careful in their responding. That didn’t happen in the alcohol condition.”

One might conclude from these data that the alcohol group, due to intoxication, was merely unaware of its inaccuracy. However, Bartholow’s team tested this conclusion by having subjects indicate, after each trial of the task, whether they believed they had responded correctly. Analysis of these accuracy judgments showed that the alcohol group was indeed aware of its errors. This outcome led to Bartholow’s hypothesis that “alcohol’s reduction of the distress that people feel over making errors” was behind the reduced brain response of the alcohol group.

In order to test his theory, Bartholow also measured participants’ self-reported negative emotional responses both before and after consuming their beverages. “In the placebo group, people started feeling less positive and more negative after they drank,” he notes, “whereas in the alcohol group the opposite occurred: they reported feeling more positive and less negative after having had their beverage.” Most importantly, statistical tests showed that these changes in reported feelings significantly predicted the brain responses to errors, revealing that a “change in affect, especially negative affect, is in some part responsible for the effect of alcohol on the brain response that we measured.”

Although previous experiments have studied how alcohol influences emotion or cognition, Bartholow says that few have focused on alcohol’s effects on social behavior. Yet, he asserts that “as our society becomes more diverse and integrated, these instances of racial prejudice or issues related to how we behave with people in other groups are increasingly important to understand.” The grant from the Research Board contributed to the study of social behaviors: it was instrumental, he says, “in testing several very important hypotheses that tell us a lot about the brain’s response to errors, specifically as it relates to expressing racial prejudice.”

Bartholow is also interested in understanding how expression of racial bias could be related to people's general cognitive processing abilities. He is just beginning a collaborative project with scientists from the University of Colorado and the University of Chicago that will “test the influence of higher-order, high-level cognitive processes on controlling the expression of racial bias.” The project will include laboratory tasks to “test individual differences in higher-order cognitive control processes,” also known as executive functioning, which Bartholow says can reveal or conceal a person’s race bias.

“Consider the case of two people, both of whom are highly racist, but one of whom has exceptionally good executive functioning abilities and the other one does not,” he suggests. “We would expect that the person with poor executive control would be more likely to show a strong bias score in a laboratory measure of race bias, whereas the other one would not. That doesn’t mean that the person with poor executive functioning is more racist than the other person—it means that the person with good control over their behavior is better able to inhibit the expression of that bias.” Bartholow describes the three-year project, funded by the National Science Foundation, as a “direct link” from the Research Board project—“it directly fell out of my funding from the UMRB,” he states.

Bartholow’s research also explores other social behaviors, especially variables influencing aggressive behavior, such as the influence of media. One project has focused on the effects of long-term exposure to violent video games. Subjects who had previous experience with such games, both violent and non-violent, were shown a slideshow including three categories of images: violent (for example, a man holding someone at gunpoint), negative but nonviolent (a rotting dog corpse), and neutral (a towel on a table). As they viewed the slideshow, Bartholow measured an aspect of brain activity known as the P300, “which, among other things, is thought to reflect the extent to which a given stimulus engages a motivational propensity.” He found that those with more exposure to violent video games had smaller P300 responses when viewing violent photos, suggesting that overexposure to these games has a desensitizing effect. This same effect did not occur with the negative but nonviolent photos.

The second portion of the study measured the aggression of participants by using a noise blast test, in which subjects were told they were competing against a stranger to see who could respond more quickly to an auditory tone. “Prior to each trial on the reaction-time task,” Bartholow explains, “subjects set a level of noise punishment that their alleged opponent will receive if the opponent loses on that trial.” The subjects with more exposure to violent games set louder noise blasts for their opponents, and “the size of their brain response to the violent pictures in the first part of the study significantly predicted how aggressive they were in the second part of the study.”

As an advocate of collaboration whose other research includes an international project in Australia, Bartholow also strives to fuse his research and teaching by educating students on methods used in the labs. He also works with “a small army of undergraduate research assistants,” who he insists are “integral to everything we do.”

Alcohol and racial bias, video games and violence—these are not the topics that necessarily come to mind when thinking of a psychologist’s research focus. But as Bartholow and his crowded white board prove, there is more to the discipline than mental illness and clinical patients. Often, studying “what makes everyday, normal people do the things that they do” can lead to the development of important knowledge on universal issues.