Group Identity; Neuroscience Studies Prove Racism and Prejudice Are Hard-Wired In The Brain

Officer in the Spokane Police Department, including Nick Briggs, develop their skills with the Counter Bias Training Simulator at Washington State University in Spokane. Realistic simulations train officers to use real clues – not stereotypes – when deciding whether or not to use deadly force.

I am a Leopard. Jay Van Bavel, a neuroscientist at New York University who studies group identity, gave me that label last summer when I was lying in a fMRI scanner near his office. While in the machine I was shown photos of faces – 12 young white men and 12 young black men. The scanner tracked by brain’s activity as I connected these individuals to group identities. Having been raised in the United States, I have lived with my country’s racial categories all my life, and it wasn’t difficult to do one of my experimental tasks: classify each face according to its skin color as either black or white. However, I also had to work with another set of categories. The men in the photos were on one of two teams, I was told: Tigers and Leopards. The screen told me who was on which team and drilled me on the details until I had it down. But I wasn’t a neutral observer: I’d been told that I was a Leopard.

My scanner tasks (based on an experiment Van Bavel and his colleagues conducted in 2008) allowed Van Bavel to compare my brain’s activity as it worked, first with a familiar and consequential group identity (race in America) and then with a group identity that was effectively meaningless.

Like the brains in the actual experiment, mine lit up differently depending on whether I perceived an in-group face (for me, a Leopards team member) or an out-group (Tiger) face. For example, my orbit frontal cortex, a brain region associated with liking, sparked up more when I saw a face from my in-group. So did the fusiform gyrus, a region tied to processing the identity of faces.

The experiment – and dozens of others like it during the past 20 years – confirmed several important facts about exactly how the human brain is “identity crazed.” The scans show, for one, that a lot of our perceptions and emotions about groups happen outside our awareness or control. I have no conscious preference for white people over black people. On the contrary, like most Americans, I abhor racism. Yet, had I not been told I was a Leopard, I almost certainly would have shown an unconscious preference for white faces over black ones. That I did not illustrates a different important finding in Van Bavel’s research: New team identities can easily supplant old ones in our minds. All Van Bavel had to do was tell me about two teams and inform me that I was on one. That was enough for my brain to prefer Leopards over Tigers as quickly and strongly as it normally distinguished black and whites.

The scans reflected a key fact about human groupishness: We have keen mental radar that seeks to learn what groups matter around us and which ones we are members of. And this radar is always on. Even as we sit comfortably in our racial, religious, national, and other identities, our minds are alert to the possibility of new coalitions.

It’s not hard to see why humans should have evolved to care about their teams and their place on those teams. Relying on each other is a sound survival strategy for a frail, noisy creature without a lot of guilt-in weapons. Living in groups is a ticket to survival, which is why most primates live in them. In fact, there is no human society without clear lines that distinguish various groups.

“This is how person perception generally works,” Van Bavel told me. “In the first split second, we judge people on the basis of their group memberships.” Caring about your group memberships isn’t something you have to learn, like reading or driving. It’s something you do automatically, like breathing.

In fact, much of our sensitivity to groups begins long before we can speak. Very young babies prefer adults who look like their caretakers over adults who look different; some evidence shows they also prefer the foods their mother’s ate while pregnant or breastfeeding over novel ones, and they like the sound of the language they heard in the womb and early in life much better than an alien tongue. These preferences continue. In adulthood most of us are better at recognizing the faces and reading the emotions of people who look and act like us.

“It’s a common misfortune around the world: People get along well enough for decades, even centuries, across lines of race or religion or culture. Then, suddenly, the neighbors aren’t people you respect, invite to dinner, trade favors with, or marry. Those once familiar faces are now Them, the Enemy, the Other. And in that clash of groups, individuality vanishes and empathy dries up, as does trust.”

Psychologists have long established how remarkably easy it is to awaken our tribal minds. In a classic experiment conducted in 1954, for example, researches from the University of Oklahoma made and unmade two warring tribes out of 22 local boys. All were sixth graders, came from similar neighborhoods, and were white. Divided into two groups and bused separately to Robbers Cave State Park, the kids were turned loose with just a few guidelines from the experimenters. Each group soon set itself up with a bunkhouse and a swimming hole, gave itself a name, and established norms (one, the Rattlers, cursed a blue streak, while their rivals, the Eagles, prided themselves on clean language). Then, a week in, each tribe discovered the other.

“Only humans — could decide they are no longer countrymen, after peacefully sharing a homeland for centuries. Only humans can switch from feeling united as one American nation to feeling divided between conservative red states and liberal blue ones. Our capacity to change our perceptions also offers some hope, because it permits people to shift in the direction of more inclusion, more justice, more peace.”

Within days they were at war – raiding each other’s bunkhouses and eating only with members of their own group. Baseball games and other competitions turned into exchanges of insults. Angry talk about “those n***** campers” and “communists” and “sissies” escalated. Then, in the third week of the camp, the experimenters faked some challenges (pulling a disabled truck, unpacking food delivered in crates) that forced the Rattlers and Eagles to work together. The experience of cooperating toward a common goal united them, by the end of the three-week camp, the boys were singing “The Star Spangled Banner” together and letting bygones be bygones.

As the Robbers Cave experiment illustrated, human beings can shift their group perceptions in both directions. Sometimes we turn Us into Them. But we can also turn Them into Us.

National Geographic Magazine Website

Excerpt from the April 2018 National Geographic Magazine Issue “Black and White.” To read further please refer to the article “The Things That Divide Us” by David Berreby; Photographs by John Stanmeyer (magazine link featured above) found on pages 46-67 of the hard copy issue. Click on the website article entitled ““Why Do We See So Many Things as ‘Us vs. Them’?”
The National Geographic website allows one free article to be read per month, per person. To access your free article per month, just create an account with NGM’s website.

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