We are enthralled by stories of prejudice. Whether it’s voters’ responses to presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s Mormonism or the tragic case of Trayvon Martin, a young black man killed by a non-black community watch coordinator in Florida, we seem at times to be obsessed with how individuals and groups discriminate against other individuals and groups. And the media, always wanting to attract more eyeballs in order to sell more ads, are glad to fan the flames.
There has been some very interesting research lately on prejudice. For instance, my previous post (“Are You Easily Disgusted? You May Be A Conservative”) on Kevin Smith’s research regarding disgust and political ideology calls up a variety of concepts of prejudice. Thomas Chadefaux and Dirk Helbing's recent article suggests the rationality of prejudice varies by situation. And would you like to test yourself for prejudice related to race, religion, weight, age, or gender? Visit Harvard’s Project Implicit study, where you can take a variety of tests for prejudice that use measures of implicit attitudes and beliefs that people are either unwilling or unable to report (no, most people will not admit to being prejudiced).
My co-author J. David Schmitz has also contributed to this research through his work on in-group/out-group political behavior. In the following, Dave presents an evolutionary argument related to the rationality of prejudice.
Dave, you’re on…
More than 30 years ago Richard Dawkins posited in The Selfish Gene that all animals are vehicles for genes seeking immortality through reproductive fitness. Because genes “want” to see themselves survive, they in a sense “program” organisms to recognize and protect other organisms sharing their same genes – and to be wary of those that aren’t. Humans are no different. Because our ultimate goal is reproduction, humans have an adapted set of fundamental goals such as mate acquisition, attainment of social status, self-protection, and disease avoidance. Because humans are ultrasocial, acquisition of these goals is played out on a day-to-day basis through cognitive, affective, and behavioral mechanisms. Some of these are positive in nature, such as the desire to nurture our young; but other mechanisms are a blueprint for precautionary aversion to those that may wish to do us harm. Prejudice may not be something entirely taught through socialization.
We are, according to Dawkins, survival machines. Evolutionary psychologists Steven L. Neuberg, Douglas T. Kenrick, and Mark Schaller explain two of the precautionary systems that have likely evolved to create a fight or flight response to those with whom we differ: self-protection and disease avoidance. In the same way humans are born with a fear of snakes, we may also have an intrinsic aversion to people that look, sound, and act different from us. For instance, humans are extremely attuned to the presence of angry facial expressions and domineering postures in public. Interestingly, an angry or fearful face is recognized much quicker in a crowd if it is held specifically by a male, and especially if that male is of a different race than one’s own. In our ancestral past, violence for resource or mate acquisition was common, and would usually involve men. The perception of a potential male aggressor thus triggers an affective, negative response in the form of prejudice toward that individual. Not all prejudice is created equal, however. Recent work by Catherine Cottrell and Steven Neuberg indicates that different perceived threats elicit different responses. Where prejudices against African American and Arab men result in fear, prejudices against gay men elicit emotions of disgust.
Disgust is central to Neuberg, Kenrick, and Schaller’s explanation of the adaptive disease avoidance system. The same area of one’s brain that doesn’t like using a dirty public restroom may in fact be the same part of the brain that creates biases against certain demographics…or even the same part that makes conservatives conservative (see the previous post). Feelings of disgust are more likely to be harbored against peoples who historically would have carried more exotic pathogens, such as strangers and foreigners. A functional mechanism borne out of disgust is thus distancing oneself from those perceived to potentially carry unwanted disease. In the same way the fear garnered by an angry male foreigner might elicit a flight response, the disgust garnered by homosexuals or foreigners as an outgroup might elicit characterizations of avoidance and/or containment. Prejudice is therefore an adapted response to perceived threat not only from physical harm, but disease as well.
…Thanks, Dave. So following Dave's review of research, prejudices may be motivated by evolutionary as well as environmental forces.
Did you visit Project Implicit? If so, leave a brief comment telling us what you found out about your level of prejudice…if you dare.
For more information: Chadefaux, T., and D. Helbing. 2012. “The Rationality of Prejudices.” PLoS ONE 7(2): e30902. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0030902.