Are human brains wired for discrimination? Researchers seem to think so.
The ability to categorize people, quickly and automatically, is a fundamental quality of the human brain. Recognizing friend from foe was a means of survival for the earliest humans that lingers in modern minds today. Categories naturally give our lives some sense of order, and every day, we group other people into categories based on social and other characteristics. Naturally, categorization leads to stereotypes and prejudice.
Brain researchers and anthropologists tell us it “makes sense” for our brains to categorize those who differ from us. And recent studies show that we behave accordingly, often by discriminating.
In 2008, Wharton School professor Justin Wolfers co-authored a study that showed racial bias among NBA referees. His conclusion: officials tend to favor players of their own ethnic backgrounds. In other words, a white referee will call more fouls on a black player and vice versa. When challenged, Wolfers put his money where his mouth is. The researcher bet on his statistics in Vegas. He turned a profit.
In another study, neuroscientist Alessio Avenanti discovered that implicit racial biases weaken our ability to feel someone else’s pain. Avenanti recruited white and black volunteers and asked them to watch videos of a stranger’s hand being poked with a needle. By measuring the brain’s empathic tendencies through neuron activity, Avenanti could measure the effect that the video had on his recruits. He found that both white and black recruits only responded empathetically when they saw hands that were the same skin tone as their own. If the hands belonged to a different ethnic group, they were unmoved.
Whether we like it or not, discrimination seems to be a “natural” way for our brains to work. But it doesn’t mean that we have to accept prejudice, racism and intolerance.
Fortunately, there is evidence that our biases can be altered: we can be “primed” so that we tap into unconscious biases or so that we avoid those biases. For example, a study was done where some subjects were told a positive story about a person from an ethnic group while others were told a negative story. Afterwards, subjects were asked to interview a member of that same ethnic group for a job. The subjects’ attitudes towards the interviewee—who behaved the same with all subjects—corresponded to the story they were told before the interview.
The notion that we can work against these biases is especially good news for teachers and their students. Knowing how our brains work allows us to move our focus from feeling guilt about our own biased thinking and judging prejudices to learning how to counteract what our brains do naturally and teaching our brains to work in new, egalitarian ways. With a little knowledge we can remove some of the “heat” that attends most discussions about racism, stereotypes and prejudice and, instead, focus on solutions.
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