Why do all the black kids sit together?

I attended a conference in Ottawa last week that was related to work. I arrived early and picked a spot at the row of tables completely arbitrarily. Other people filtered in a bit later, and when I looked up from my computer, I realized that all of the black people in the room (well, there were only three so maybe ‘all’ is a bit misleading) were sitting in the same area as me.

It’s a phenomenon that you can observe pretty much anywhere, where members of a minority group tend to flock together. It even spawned the title of a book on racism and psychology.

Okay, and?

My job straddles a line between epidemiology, statistics and economics. While I can’t really claim to be an expert in any one of those fields individually, I can at least speak semi-intelligibly about them. A central concept in economics is the idea of an “incentive” – decisions are made by rational agents to gain something they value. By increasing the value gained by making a particular choice, you make that choice more appealing. For example, if you have the choice between two hamburgers, and I slap a piece of delicious bacon on one (but not the other), you’re more likely to choose the one with extra value.

The converse case of incentives are what are termed “disincentives” – additional features that make a rational agent less likely to make a choice. Suppose you are a vegan, and you are forced to choose between those same two hamburgers. All of a sudden, the addition of delicious bacon makes that sandwich less appealing.

This is an incredibly simplistic description of the concept, obviously, but hopefully it is clear.

Wait… what?

There is an illusion that we carry around in our minds that we have a “true self” – that we have a personality that is the “real me” version. The fact is that our personality is more strongly determined by the surrounding social environment and other external stimuli than it is by our intentions. As a result, when our environment changes, different aspects of our “self” become more apparent.

There is a classic example of this called “stereotype threat“, in which a person’s performance is (positively or negatively) affected by making a stereotype about them apparent. This is commonly seen when discussing the differential performance of women in science and mathematics. Women were inundated with a prevailing stereotype that “girls are not good at science”. As a result, when women are reminded of their gender before testing, they do worse than if they are not made aware.

What does this have to do with anything?

Social pressure exists. The presence of others is a real environmental cue, that will cause us to be aware of various aspects of our identity. As a direct result, we will switch over to one of our various “selves”. At this workshop, everyone in the room was similar in most ways – we all have similar careers, similar education, probably similar interests. However, my presence in the room reminded the other two black guys of their “black guy self”, creating an ad hoc group. This happened completely passively – I didn’t walk up to them and say “welcome, fellow black man.” It happened all by itself – all they had to do was notice that there was another black person around.

There’s another level that this operates on though. Imagine the converse – you are a physicist in a room full of actors. You are trying to have a conversation about beauty, but every time you slip into physics-speak, you are met by blank stares. Another physicist joins the conversation – your life immediately becomes easier. Even though you might not ordinarily gravitate toward this particular person, this arbitrary similarity makes her/him highly attractive to you.

It’s the same way for members of any minority group – when they feel different from the rest of the group, they are more likely to gravitate toward those who are similarly different.


This ability to make certain identities more apparent can be used as an incentive to make decisions. If I would like you to donate to my women’s rights charity, I might do well to remind you that you have a sister, or a mother, or that you are a woman yourself. By bringing an aspect of your “self” to the foreground of your mind, I am able to influence you (as a rational agent) into making one decision (donating your money) rather than another (keeping it).

It is for this reason that things like the Atheist Bus Ads and the Out Campaign are useful – not for antagonizing the religious (although that is certainly what the faithful are claiming), but for bringing atheists out into the open. By making nonbelievers aware of their nonbelief, it brings that aspect of their “self” more apparent and helps motivate their behaviour.

Why is that good? Shouldn’t everyone consider themselves equal?

This kind of counterexample is appealing, and commonly used to blame those who talk about racism as “the real racists”. After all, by pointing out that there are treatment inequalities between different racial groups, aren’t you reinforcing the idea that races are different?

Describing reality is not the same as creating that reality. My usual go-to example is blaming someone for yelling “look out!”, and thereby causing a passerby to get hit by a bus. The bus was there to begin with, and would have hit the person regardless of the warning. The purpose of the warning is to make the passerby aware of the problem so she/he can take steps to avoid or fix it.

Atheists who are reminded of their atheism aren’t suddenly turned into atheists – they were already. Making that reality more apparent is not creating a difference, it’s just highlighting it for the explicit purpose of motivating people to consider their “atheist self”.

The bizarre thing about this whole phenomenon is that we often aren’t aware that these social forces play such a role. It was until I commented on our seating arrangement that the other two guys smiled and said “oh yeah”. Once aware of it, we can recognize it intuitively, but sometimes it happens without our even knowing.

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