Psychologist Catherine Cottrell at the University of Florida and her colleague Steven Neuberg at Arizona State University, argue that human prejudice evolved as a function of group living. Joining together in groups allowed humans to gain access to resources necessary for survival including food, water, and shelter. Groups also offered numerous advantages, such as making it easier to find a mate, care for children, and receive protection from others. However, group living also made us more wary of outsiders who could potentially harm the group by spreading disease, killing or hurting individuals, or stealing precious resources. To protect ourselves, we developed ways of identifying who belongs to our group and who doesn’t. Over time, this process of quickly evaluating others might have become so streamlined that it became unconscious.
Psychologists have long known that many of our prejudices operate automatically, without us even being aware of them. Most people, even those who care deeply about equality, show some level of prejudice towards other groups when tested using the IAT. Despite this overwhelming evidence that our brains are wired for bias, our society continues to think about prejudice as premeditated behavior. Our current laws against discrimination, as well as the majority of diversity training programs, assume that prejudice is overt and intentional. Rarely do we teach people about how automatic prejudices might taint their behavior towards others.
The fact that prejudice often occurs automatically doesn’t mean we can’t find ways of overcoming its negative effects. For example, there is evidence that when people are made aware of their automatic prejudices, they can self-correct. And when we are encouraged to take the perspective of an outsider, it reduces our automatic prejudice towards that person’s group.
Given that most of the difficult conflicts we face in the world today originate from clashes between social groups, it makes sense to devote time to understanding how to reduce our biases. But our evolutionary past suggests that in order to be effective, we may need to adopt a new approach. Often we focus more on political, historical, and cultural factors rather than the underlying patterns of thinking that fuel all conflicts. By taking into account the extent to which prejudice is deeply rooted in our brains, we have a better chance of coming up with long-term solutions that work with, rather than against, our natural tendencies.
Are you a scientist? And have you recently read a peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about? Please send suggestions to Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist at the Boston Globe. He can be reached at garethideas AT gmail.com or Twitter @garethideas.