Under The Skin: Psychophysiological Consequences of Racial Discrimination

Miriam Josephine Alvarez, University of Texas at El Paso


Background. Attitudes toward one’s ethnic group can have particular implications for health functioning among groups that are misrepresented or discriminated against by societal institutions. The present experiments tested the consequences of experiencing racism on psychophysiological stress and executive function. Resilience and ethnic identity are examined as a protective factors. Specifically, Experiment 1 testes how discrimination impacts (1) anxiety, (2) heart rate, (3) working memory, and (4) the role of resilience as a protective factor. Experiment 2 sought to (1) replicate Experiment 1, (2) explore the interaction of ethnic identification and perceived prejudice on stress among Latinxs, and (3) establish a process model that explain the mechanism of how perceiving prejudice activates a heightened biological stress response, and in turn, impairs self-control leading to poor health choices. Experiment 1 revealed significant increases in heart rate and self-reported levels of anxiety after experiencing racism. Participants high on resilience exhibited less increase in anxiety, suggesting that resilience is a protective factor that buffers the effect of racism. Experiment 2 replicated Experiment 1, participants in the racism condition had significantly higher heart rate and anxiety, in comparison to the no racism conditions. Results showed no effect of condition on cortisol and self-control. Ethnic-identity did not moderate this effect. Contrary to predictions, participants in racism condition were more likely to make a healthy food choice. Conclusion. The fact that about half of Latinxs in the U.S. say they have experienced discrimination or have been treated unfairly because of their ethnicity reinforces the importance of understanding the intersectionality of ethnic identity and perceived prejudice as pathways to negative health outcomes.

Subject Area

Experimental psychology|Ethnic studies|Psychobiology|Physiological psychology|Social psychology|Physiology

Recommended Citation

Alvarez, Miriam Josephine, "Under The Skin: Psychophysiological Consequences of Racial Discrimination" (2019). ETD Collection for University of Texas, El Paso. AAI13882461.