Racial bias shapes social reinforcement learning

B Lindström, I Selbing, T Molapour, A Olsson: Racial bias shapes social reinforcement learning. In: Psychological science, 25 (3), pp. 711-719, 2014.


Both emotional facial expressions and markers of racial-group belonging are ubiquitous signals in social interaction, but little is known about how these signals together affect future behavior through learning. To address this issue, we investigated how emotional (threatening or friendly) in-group and out-group faces reinforced behavior in a reinforcement-learning task. We asked whether reinforcement learning would be modulated by intergroup attitudes (i.e., racial bias). The results showed that individual differences in racial bias critically modulated reinforcement learning. As predicted, racial bias was associated with more efficiently learned avoidance of threatening out-group individuals. We used computational modeling analysis to quantitatively delimit the underlying processes affected by social reinforcement. These analyses showed that racial bias modulates the rate at which exposure to threatening out-group individuals is transformed into future avoidance behavior. In concert, these results shed new light on the learning processes underlying social interaction with racial-in-group and out-group individuals.