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Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2017 Aug 1;12(8):1314-1324. doi: 10.1093/scan/nsx052.

Putting race in context: social class modulates processing of race in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and amygdala.

Author information

Global Studies Institute.
Petit Science Center, Neuroscience Institute.
Department of Sociology, Georgia State University, Atlanta, GA, USA.
Department of Sociology, University of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa, USA.
Department of Radiology.
Department of Psychiatry, University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine, Iowa City, Iowa, USA.
Department of Biomedical Engineering, 1402 Seamans Center for the Engineering Arts and Sciences, University of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa, USA.
Department of Neurology, University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine, Iowa City, Iowa, USA.
Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, University of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa, USA.


A growing body of literature demonstrates that racial group membership can influence neural responses, e.g. when individuals perceive or interact with persons of another race. However, little attention has been paid to social class, a factor that interacts with racial inequalities in American society. We extend previous literature on race-related neural activity by focusing on how the human brain responds to racial out-groups cast in positively valued social class positions vs less valued ones. We predicted that the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) and the amygdala would have functionally dissociable roles, with the vmPFC playing a more significant role within socially valued in-groups (i.e. the middle-class) and the amygdala having a more crucial role for socially ambivalent and threatening categories (i.e. upper and lower class). We tested these predictions with two complementary studies: (i) a neuropsychological experiment with patients with the vmPFC or amygdala lesions, contrasted with brain damaged and normal comparison participants, and (ii) a functional magnetic resonance imaging experiment with 15 healthy adults. Our findings suggest that two distinct mechanisms underlie class-based racial evaluations, one engaging the vmPFC for positively identified in-group class and another recruiting the amygdala for the class groups that are marginalized or perceived as potential threats.


emotions; fMRI; lesion; race; social class

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