Epistemic Injustice and Trauma: The Neural Substrates Involved in Having One's Credibility Repeatedly Undermined

Project Awarded: $29,138

Critical inquiry is valuable in healthy public discourse and professional settings. However, it has been suggested that persistent questioning of the capacity of some people to be “knowers” is an important way that racism and sexism are enacted on a societal scale (i.e., testimonial injustice; Fricker, 2007; Washington, 2016). It has been proposed that, for members of marginalized social groups, the day to day experience of repeatedly having one’s credibility undermined, along with other micro-inequities and acts of discrimination, can alter the brain in similar ways to victims of trauma (e.g., reduced volume in parts of the brain associated with affective control like the anterior cingulate and prefrontal cortex, and hyper-responsiveness in regions associated with emotional processing such as the amygdala)--even without one ‘sudden, catastrophic event’ of the sort that qualifies a person for a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) (Carter, 2007; American Psychiatric Association, 2013; for PTSD’s effects on the brain, see Bremner, 2006).

This research investigates whether having one’s testimony persistently and unjustly questioned is experienced behaviorally, physiologically, and neurally in a manner similar to the experience of hostility. If credibility threats can affect the brain in a manner indistinguishable from hostility (hostile threat being typically understood to qualify as a ‘traumatic’ stressor) this would suggest that testimonial injustice is traumatic in a clinically relevant sense. Women, people of color, socioeconomic minorities, and those with prior history of multiple stressors and traumatic life events (i.e., sexual assault and chronic identity-based injustice), are expected to show behavioral, physiological, and neural responses to credibility threats that appear most similar to those responses associated with the experience of hostility, as they may be sensitized to credibility threats as indicative of the presence of other more serious personal threats. Findings consistent with this hypothesis thus lend credence to the idea that testimonial injustice and other ‘microinjustices’ qualify as traumatic for their experiencers, even without the presence of discernibly hostile speech acts.

This research represents novel interdisciplinary work bridging neuroscience and social epistemology within philosophy, and aims to have real social significance. If it turns out that the neural markers of credibility threats are substantially similar (or even indistinguishable) to those associated with PTSD and other forms of traumatic stress (e.g., race-based, sexual assault-based), then we may have good reason to rethink the clinical constructs (e.g., DSM diagnostic criteria and their relationship to cognitive ontology). Moreover, this research directly investigates testimonial injustice as a relatively “soft” way to perpetrate real harm toward targeted groups.

Team members:

 Laura Niemi, PhD. Post-doctoral fellow in Philosophy and the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, Duke University

Laura Niemi, PhD. Post-doctoral fellow in Philosophy and the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, Duke University

 Clifford Workman, PhD. Post-doctoral fellow in social neuroscience, University of Chicago

Clifford Workman, PhD. Post-doctoral fellow in social neuroscience, University of Chicago

 Natalia Washington, PhD. Post-doctoral fellow in Philosophy, Neuroscience, and Psychology, Washington University, St. Louis

Natalia Washington, PhD. Post-doctoral fellow in Philosophy, Neuroscience, and Psychology, Washington University, St. Louis