Robert Wright reports on a recent study that suggests that racism is not an innate characteristic but is learned as we get older. Previous studies had found that seeing a black face triggered a stronger response in the amygdala, the part of the brain that controls emotional response and threat detection. But this new study did an interesting spin on that research:
In a paper that will be published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, Eva Telzer of UCLA and three other researchers report that they’ve performed these amygdala studies–which had previously been done on adults–on children. And they found something interesting: the racial sensitivity of the amygdala doesn’t kick in until around age 14.
What’s more: once it kicks in, it doesn’t kick in equally for everybody. The more racially diverse your peer group, the less strong the amygdala effect. At really high levels of diversity, the effect disappeared entirely. The authors of the study write that “these findings suggest that neural biases to race are not innate and that race is a social construction, learned over time.”
But Wright also makes another interesting point, which is that humans are almost certainly predisposed to break up into groups and to engage in tribalism, but not necessarily based on the divisions we might expect:
I’m not a blank slater; I don’t believe that we’re born innocent, and only develop a dark side after bad tendencies are engrained by evil capitalists, or evil patriarchs, or evil warmongers, or evil whatevers. I think that, though we’re not naturally racist, we’re naturally “groupist.” Evolution seems to have inclined us to readily define whole groups of people as the enemy, after which we can find their suffering, even death, very easy to countenance and even facilitate.
But when it comes to defining this enemy–defining the “out group”–people are very flexible. The out group can be defined by its language, its religion, its skin color, its jersey color. (And jersey color can trump skin color–just watch a brawl between one racially integrated sports team and another.) It all depends on which group we consider (rightly or wrongly) in some sense threatening to our interests.
It’s in this sense that race is a “social construct.” It’s not a category that’s inherently correlated with our patterns of fear or mistrust or hatred, though, obviously, it can become one. So it’s within our power to construct a society in which race isn’t a meaningful construct.
In other words, tribalism is a flexible thing. More interesting to me is how tribalism affects our thinking, especially when the tribes are based on different ideas rather than on race or geography or that sort of thing. I think it often distorts our thinking, some of us so completely that it renders us predominantly irrational.