Psychological and neural evidence suggests that negative attitudes toward stigmatized individuals arise in part from failures to perceive them as social targets. Here, we tested whether experimentally upregulating neural regions involved in social cognition would predict subsequent decreases in bias toward stigmatized individuals (i.e., people who use substances).
Participants underwent fMRI while completing either a lovingkindness intervention task or a control task, and each task was reinforced via daily text messages for a month following the one-time fMRI scan. Changes in implicit bias against stigmatized individuals were measured by Implicit Association Tests.
The lovingkindness intervention task, compared with a control task, elicited greater baseline activity in the right temporoparietal junction (RTPJ), implicated in mentalizing, or the process of making inferences about others’ mental states. The lovingkindness task compared with the control task also produced marginal decreases in bias over the month of the intervention. Individual differences in initial RTPJ activity at baseline during the fMRI intervention tasks further predicted improved implicit attitudes toward stigmatized individuals a month later.
The current study suggests that individual differences in people’s tendency to engage brain regions that support taking others’ perspectives are associated with greater changes in bias reduction over time. It is possible that strategies that upregulate mentalizing activity, such as lovingkindness training and other strategies that increase social cognitive processing, may be effective in shifting people’s biases against stigmatized individuals.