Where Does Prejudice Come From?
We humans are very good at dividing ourselves up into groups. We accomplish this in a multitude of ways. Even within homogeneous groupings we tend to find subtle ways to carve people out. It is far easier however, when people vary by gender, ethnicity, race, class, neighborhood, region, nationality, religion, and/or sexual orientation. For some reason we are drawn to and comforted by others that share physical resemblance, culture, attitude, values, history, important symbols, and affiliations. Conversely, we are threatened by those in the outgroup. Why is this? What drives us to carve out, cast away and divide our fellow human beings into camps of “us” and “them?” Is it a byproduct of socialization or perhaps a part of our nature?
I saw this very clearly growing up in a small rural town in Western New York. Even though we were all white middle class Christian kids for the most part, we effectively divided ourselves into camps – some actively participating in the parceling and others passively falling victim to it. There were the popular kids, the tough kids, the village kids, and the farm kids. And as we became more “sophisticated,” the parcels emerged with more universal group titles such as the heads, the jocks, the brains, the nerds, etc. Some kids traversed multiple groups quite effectively while others fit into no group at all.
It wasn’t until I went to college that I was immersed with young adults who parceled out their peers in even more “enlightened” ways. I went to SUNY Geneseo where the student body was very similar to that of my home town, again, largely a white middle class subset of New York State – but a bit more diverse geographically and religiously. The most striking division was imposed by students from Westchester County, Long Island, and New York City who looked at their fellow New Yorkers emanating from any location west of the Hudson River as being inferior. This “geographism” was shocking to me. I was clearly in the inferior outgroup.
On top of that, there were sorority and fraternity groupings, valuations made by respect for one’s major, and more subtly by the size of the town one came from. All this being said, I enjoyed college, learned a lot, and have great respect for the institution today. I am not singling out any one town or university – I suspect that my experience was no different than that most kids encountered growing up. The point is this – we are seemingly driven to parcel ourselves. Even during my doctoral training in Cincinnati there was “geographism” whereby people from Kentucky (just across the Ohio River) were cast in a relative negative light by Ohioans much as New Yorkers downcast people from Pennsylvania or New Jersey. On another level, think about the antipathy between cat lovers and dog lovers. Then there are Yankee fans and Red Sox fans (insert any sports team where fans divide themselves with similar acrimony). It is every where!
I was very fortunate to have a mother who encouraged me to respect diversity and not to judge others by group affiliation. She spoke out against or talked with me privately so that I would not emulate other role models who were not so open minded. I have always been thankful for her influence. And because of her I have in maturity always tried to emulate her. It’s not always easy – but I do try. Something tells me that one’s level of prejudice is not simply a function of having a great role model or a bad one. This tendency is so universal and plays out in very subtle ways that are not always evidenced as explicit overt racism or sexism.
Evidence, as it turns out, is increasingly supporting my hunch. Group prejudices are evident even in pre-vocal babies (Mahajan, 2011). This growing body of research has been supplemented by an ingenious set of studies of prejudice in nonhuman primates published recently in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The primary author, Neha Mahajan, from Yale University, was kind enough to share with me her paper entitled The Evolution of Intergroup Bias: Perceptions and Attitudes in Rhesus Macaques.
The researchers conducted seven different in-vivo experiments to explore whether old world monkeys, with whom we shared a common ancestor more than 30 million years ago (Hedges & Blair, Ed., 2009), evidence human-like intergroup bias. This preliminary work establishes that we do share this trait, suggesting that prejudice may in fact be a part of our very nature. It appears that prejudicial thinking has been adaptive from an evolutionary perspective or at least has been a vestigial stow away linked with some other trait that has been naturally selected.
There is some danger in this notion. If we accept prejudice as a part of our nature, we may be more inclined to devote less effort to address it from a social perspective. The authors are careful to point out, however, that previous research has established that prejudices can be re-mediated through exposure and teaching or conversely entrenched through poor modeling. These results do not diminish the influence of nurture, instead the authors highlight the importance of understanding that our brains are pre-wired for prejudice. I have discussed human prejudice before within the context of the Implicit Associations Test (IAT) that suggests that our biases are implicit (unconscious). Although implicit attributes are difficult to measure, there is good reason to believe that we do universally, inherently, and unknowingly harbor biases. We must accept this and build programs upon this understanding with targeted evidenced based strategies to combat such erroneous thinking. It is part of who we are – and once again, evidence of how flawed the human brain is. Hate, bullying, homophobia, and racism – they all are part of our “monkey-brain.” Here’s hoping we can rise above it.
Grewal, D. (2011). The Evolution of Prejudice: Scientists See the Beginnings of Racism in Monkeys. Scientific American: MIND. April 5.
Hedges, S. B., & Blair, S. (Eds.). (2009). The Timetree of Life. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Mahajan, N., Martinez, M. A., Gutiezzez, N. L., Diesendruck, G., Banaji, M., & Santos, L. R. (2011). The Evolution of Intergroup Bias: Perceptions and Attitudes in Rhesus Macaques. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Vol. 100, No. 3. 387-405.