A headline in the New York Times drew my eye this morning: “On a Battlefield of Civil Rights, Race Fades for Some Voters.” The story reported that “voters in an Alabama county that is more than 96 percent white chose a genial black man, James Fields, to represent them in the State House of Representatives.” Why, you might ask, is that front-page news more than 100 years after the Civil War?
Part of the answer is that we are still using brains evolved over millions of years to prefer what social psychologists call our “in-group”—those with whom we identify, who historically could help us survive as members of our collaborative tribe or clan. Our brains use shortcuts for such social identification, swiftly categorizing others—and ourselves—to avoid the energy-intensive processing of conscious thought. Often we do not even realize how extensively subconscious stereotypes shape our reactions, as two feature articles in this issue reveal.
The first, “The Social Psychology of Success,” by S. Alexander Haslam, Jessica Salvatore, Thomas Kessler and Stephen D. Reicher, looks at behavioral aspects. It explains how people’s performance is shaped by awareness of stereotypes. For example, when solving math problems, Asian women who think of themselves as female (stereotypically worse at math as compared with males) will perform less well than if they think of themselves as Asian (stereotypically better at math). Read the article to learn how to throw off the yoke of expectation. The second article, “Buried Prejudice,” by Siri Carpenter, digs into the neuroscience of implicit bias and how it affects cognition. Even basic visual preferences are skewed toward in-groups; studies show that we remember faces better if they match our own racial group.
Are we stuck with our mental stereotypes? Not at all. After all, knowledge (about the brain) is power. As Haslam and company conclude, we “can learn to use stereotypes as tools of our own liberation. In short, who we think we are determines both how we perform and what we are able to become.”
This article was originally published with the title Great Expectations.