The race for Humanity: Race as a social construct

The race for Humanity: cover image

Older it may seem, the discussion about the use of racial categorization in our species is ongoing. Such is, to a great extent, due to the lack of objectivity of race as a concept and the need for a holistic approach to examine it. Even if no definite answer may be provided on whether its appliance is legitimate or not, an alternative approach can be advanced: seek to better inform about the fascinating diversity existent within our species, and the difficulties our cognitive system faces when processing it. The race for Humanity is a series of articles in which the reader is invited to take this path and formulate an opinion even beyond that expressed by the author. Its first part focuses on race as a social construct.


The main problem in the debate to come starts from its very beginning: the definition of the concept of race. Here, it is proposed that race can be approached from two perspectives: as a social construct or following the current taxonomy’s rules, as a synonym of subspecies The first is associated with traditional delineations of animal breeds, a classification largely transmitted by teaching. Usually, it is mostly based on phenotypical aspects – established according to similarities of external traits – and may include behavioural cues as well.

This first part will consist of a psychological journey to the realm of our cognitive system and its categorisation processes. Despite being hard to tackle thoroughly race as a social construct, there is a series of questions worth raising: How is this mechanism of categorization built in our minds? Can we trust our cognitive system regarding this aspect? Are there any behavioural and psychological differences between Human groups which can sustain a racial classification? By providing answers, it is possible to draw a statement on how seriously, or not, we should take our mental elaborations of race as a social construct.

Unraveling the machinery of prejudice?

For many years, race encoding was thought to be automatic and mandatory; a primary dimension of categorization, just as sex [1]. This was partially due to the fact that researchers were not being able to reduce racial categorization through context manipulations [2]. However, it was later argued that race categorization could be merely a by-product of some cognitive mechanism. Thus, three main hypothesis were laid on the table: that race encoding is part of a domain-general correlational system affecting our perception; that race encoding is a consequence of our essentialist inference system; and, finally, that race encoding was a side-effect of our coalitional psychology [3].

The first fails to explain why attributing membership into a racial category through observed phenotypical features frequently ends up being a basis for making behavioural inferences, and empirical data has shown that race is not trivially processed as colour or shape [3]. Conversely, regarding the second, there are reasonable anthropological accounts supporting we perceive races as natural-kinds, to which we tend to ascribe a certain essence [4].

The final hypothesis obtained convincing empirical evidence. In a recall task, by manipulating basketball teams’ jersey colours as coalitional cues, the race effect was, at last, significantly reduced – suggesting the drive to establish social alliances was the primary factor in the categorization process [5]. Consequently, race codification can be seen as part of a set of tools, a cognitive shortcut, to elaborate quick, a priori inferences about with whom is safe to interact with. It doesn’t comes as an evolutionary surprise that such characteristics were selected in an extremely social species. Racial categorization seems to be, after all, a dynamic process whose function is rather specific. Therefore, despite of also consisting in assigning essences to the perceived races, it may not be merely a consequence of a general essentialist inference system.

Race as a social construct (The race for Humanity): Racial categorization and cognition
Figure 1: Scheme of the several hypothesis concerning how race is encoded. It was possible to exclude that race is a primary dimension of categorization or part of a domain-general correlational system. On the other hand, convincing support was given to our coalitional psychology as being the responsible for the racial encoding. Nevertheless, some kind of interaction should occur with our essentialist inference system, as we tend to ascribe essences to the perceived races. Based on cited literature by Cosmides et al. [3,5] and GilWhite et al. [4].

How fine-grained are these strange engines?

The bias towards faces perceived as belonging to the same race is a widely studied phenomena, observed even in children with 3 months [6]. In short, eye-movement patterns and with pupillometry [7] studies have shown that faces from allegedly different races require higher efforts to be processed. Similarly, brain activation research [8] points that this bias is related with a cognitive deficit. Nevertheles, there are accounts that this effect is ameliorated when participants are aware of the bias and elicited to overcome it [9], as well as when they are trained to individuate a wider range of faces [10]. Thus, there is a neural plasticity, which allows us to learn to better process the Human unknown, so to say.

Interestingly, eliciting a group context with people sharing the same ethnicity is enough to produce a face recognition deficit towards those supposedly belonging to an out-group [11]. If so, it may be that we focus only in faces from individuals we a priori feel to be safe to interact with – as it were a deeper search for signs of trust. An example, using a specific trait: music from other cultural traditions tend to be judged as more cognitively demanding and tense [12]. When exposed to a certain music gender one is not at all familiar with, isn’t it common to feel that “is sounds all the same”? Stereotyping is told to work likewise – as the brain’s response to social stimuli anticipated to be somehow potentially overwhelming [1].

Another phenomenon to account for is racial innumeracy. Semyonov et al.’s [13] study in Germany provided revealing results: natives perceived the relative size of the immigrant population significantly higher, than its actual size, usually the double, across several districts. And it was the agents’ estimation, not the objective size, that was positively correlated with the perceived threat from out-groups – which by its turn, related with discriminatory behaviours. Additionally, racial innumeracy includes the underestimation of the majority as well [14]. Hence, on one hand, we tend to produce artificial categories when facing cognitively demanding judgements; on the other, it seems they become exaggeratedly salient from those we are familiar with [1]. In conclusion, the answer to this section’s question, as non-scientific as it may seem, would be: terribly; across many aspects.

Can we classify Humans using behavioural and psychological criteria?

Human groups differ behaviourally, otherwise there would be no cultural diversity. There is a potential culture-behaviour-brain loop ocurring: culture shapes behaviour; this affects the brain; which, by its turn, impacts behaviour; and so on [15]. For example, distinct language systems may not recruit exactly the same neural networks [16], thus differently tuning the brain [17]. In addition, Park and Huang [18] reviewed studies comparing Western and East Asian cultures, providing evidences that individuals from the latter were biased to process context, recur less to categorizations, and rely more on intuitive reasoning. Accompanying such behavioural differences, there were contrasting eye-fixation patterns emerging across several tasks; plus disparities in brain activation, brain structure, and aging. Despite admitting other factors can also play a role in these results, the authors advocated they are to a great extent due to cultural wiring of the brain. 

Conversely, other types of explanations have been advanced in one of the most sensitive contrasts studied: the intelligence coefficient (IQ). As represented in Figure 2, disparities in mean scores across Human populations have been detected with considerable consistency [19], and there are researchers attributing them partially to genetic factors [20]. Such claims tend to raise a wave of indignation and aggressiveness [21] – but, ironically, that stance can be considered ethnocentric in itself, because the IQ, similarly to race, is a social construct. In other words, it is a cultural conception of intelligence, by any means objectively determinant of Human dignity. The IQ scale may be valid, reliable, and applicable across Human populations [22], but it does no more than providing a score to intelligence as it is conceived by a very small fraction of Humanity.

For the sake of the argument, here intelligence is proposed to be defined as the capacity to efficiently navigate into the world surrounding us. It continues by considering the accounts Henrich [23] gathered, of European explorers getting lost during expeditions in other continents, and depending on the cumulative cultural knowledge of their native populations to survive. No test needed to be administered by the locals to conclude that these visitors, at that particular place and time point, could be easily be classified as dumb – mortally dumb. That is to say that intelligence is quite a relative and fluid concept.

However, what is of real interest to the present work is to investigate if this variability is indeed governed by genetic transmission. Some critics can be pointed to such position. First, IQ scores were documented to be increasing within populations, similarly to height [22] – which may be much less a consequence of polygenic selection and inheritance as once thought [24]. In fact, despite existing reports that genes regulating our brain size are under positive selection [25], other recent studies have noted that the evolution of the Human genome might have been mostly affected by negative selection – sweeping alleles which reduced the individuals’ fitness, rather than the selection of superior novel ones [26]. Second, factors like birth order and socioeconomic status were also associated with test score [27], suggesting there may be confounding variables behind the effect; familiarity with the test, for example. Third, several psychological experiments have shown that, by removing stereotypical threat, the performance in intellectual tests gets even between Americans of African and European ancestry [28].

These are good reasons to advocate that we need to be very careful when relating mean differences in IQ with genetic inheritance. Moreover, Figure 2 shows a considerable intra-continental variation, from which non-sense racial categories would be produced, at least in respect to the traditional classification (White, Black, Mongoloid, and Native American). Interestingly, the decays seem to tend to occur from North to South [21]. Additionally, even intra-country inconsensties have been detected, which were attributed to socioeconomic contrasts [21].

Race as a socialconstruct (The race for Humanity): IQ variation in Human populations
Figure 2: Variation in mean IQ score across the World. Native populations refer, from the left to the right, to Greeks, Native American Indians, Kalahari Bushmen, New Zealand Maori, Micronesians and Polynesians, and Australian Aborigines. Based on a review by Lynn [21].

Still within the perspective of race as a social construct, another problem arises from using behavioural and psychological criteria to establish categories: these characteristics, unlike genes, can be to a considerable extension changeable through horizontal transmission. Indeed, bicultural individuals are told to be cable of engaging into cultural frame switching [29], meaning they have disparate behavioural pathways which can be triggered by cues from specific cultures. For instance, this has been documented to occur when distinct cultural primes were presented during aesthetic judgments [30]; and when, by changing the language being used, personality shifts were registered [31]. Also, there’s data showing a tendency for migrants to, across generations, approach the host society score level on several traits, such as religiosity, collectivism, self-esteem, trust, and social closeness [32].

Then… what is left for us to do with all this Human diversity?

Explore it. Appreciate it.


From the information provided, regarding race as a social construct, it becomes fair to state that there are very good reasons for not trusting our cognitive system when it starts drawing racial categories – and stereotypes in general. We even know it potentially betrays us for the sake of facilitating our navigation in a dense social environment, in which we are demanded to make quick judgments about whom can we safely interact with. Therefore, despite recognizing the existence of racial categorization as a natural side-effect of well-established mental mechanisms, it is here advocated that Humans should be able to prevent it from blinding their intelligence. Above all, the first is to understand well our cognitive deficits and misleading tendencies.

Overall, we have seen that the fantastic behavioural and psychological diversity exhibited by our species doesn’t seem to serve as a reliable proxy for establishing a racial classification due to being mutable, highly prone to biases, and having internal inconsistencies. We may still have many miles ahead, but throughout these paragraphs, hopefully, a couple of important steps were given within the race for Humanity – which is probably the most interesting social construct that ever came into our minds!

References in Part I: Race as a social construct

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[3] Cosmides, L., Tooby, J., & Kurzban, R. (2003). Perceptions of race. Trends in cognitive sciences7(4), 173-179.

[4] GilWhite, F., Astuti, R., Atran, S., Banton, M., Boyer, P., Gelman, S. A., … & Laitin, D. D. (2001). Are ethnic groups biological “species” to the human brain? Essentialism in our cognition of some social categories. Current anthropology42(4), 515-553.

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[14] Wong, C. J. (2007). “Little” and “big” pictures in our heads: Race, local context, and innumeracy about racial groups in the United States. Public Opinion Quarterly71(3), 392-412.

[15] Han, S., & Ma, Y. (2015). A culture–behavior–brain loop model of human development. Trends in Cognitive Sciences19(11), 666-676.

[16] Bolger, D. J., Perfetti, C. A., & Schneider, W. (2005). Cross‐cultural effect on the brain revisited: Universal structures plus writing system variation. Human brain mapping, 25(1), 92-104.

[17] Tan, L. H., Spinks, J. A., Feng, C. M., Siok, W. T., Perfetti, C. A., Xiong, J., … & Gao, J. H. (2003). Neural systems of second language reading are shaped by native language. Human brain mapping, 18(3), 158-166.

[18] Park, D. C., & Huang, C. M. (2010). Culture wires the brain: A cognitive neuroscience perspective. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 5(4), 391-400.

[19] Rushton, J. P., & Jensen, A. R. (2005). Thirty years of research on race differences in cognitive ability. Psychology, public policy, and law11(2), 235.

[20] Piffer, D. (2019). Evidence for recent polygenic selection on educational attainment and intelligence inferred from Gwas hits: A replication of previous findings using recent data. Psych1(1), 55-75.

[21] Lynn, R. (2019). Reflections on Sixty-Eight Years of Research on Race and Intelligence. Psych1(1), 123-131.

[22] Carl, N. (2019). The fallacy of equating the hereditarian hypothesis with racism. Psych1(1), 262-278.

[23] Henrich, J. (2017). The secret of our success: How culture is driving human evolution, domesticating our species, and making us smarter (pp.22-33). Princeton University Press.

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[25] Evans, P. D., Gilbert, S. L., Mekel-Bobrov, N., Vallender, E. J., Anderson, J. R., Vaez-Azizi, L. M., … & Lahn, B. T. (2005). Microcephalin, a gene regulating brain size, continues to evolve adaptively in humans. science309(5741), 1717-1720.

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[27] Cottrell, J. M., Newman, D. A., & Roisman, G. I. (2015). Explaining the black–white gap in cognitive test scores: Toward a theory of adverse impact. Journal of Applied Psychology100(6), 1713.

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[30] Chattaraman, V., Rudd, N. A., & Lennon, S. J. (2010). The malleable bicultural consumer: Effects of cultural contexts on aesthetic judgments. Journal of Consumer Behaviour: An International Research Review9(1), 18-31.

[31] Chen, S. X., & Bond, M. H. (2010). Two languages, two personalities? Examining language effects on the expression of personality in a bilingual context. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin36(11), 1514-1528.

[32] Mesoudi, A. (2018). Migration, acculturation, and the maintenance of between-group cultural variation. PloS one, 13(10), e0205573.

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