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Oct 24 2012

Racism, Tribalism and Evolution

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.

20 comments

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  1. 1
    Gregory in Seattle

    I thought it had been established decades ago that the issue is difference, not what a specific difference is.

  2. 2
    jamessweet

    Yeah, I’m with Gregory in finding this utterly unsurprising — although it’s always good to have more empirical data.

    Contra the popular phrase, children don’t need to be taught to hate. But they do need to be taught who to hate. (Or, ideally, taught not to hate… but that’s the most difficult of all, since it goes against countless millennia of evolutionary programming. Luckily, it’s worth it!)

  3. 3
    kantalope

    Betcha a Foxnews watcher’s amygdala would do a backflip if you snuck up on am and whispered ‘librul’ right in their ear.

  4. 4
    ibbica

    Contra the popular phrase, children don’t need to be taught to hate. But they do need to be taught who to hate. (Or, ideally, taught not to hate… but that’s the most difficult of all, since it goes against countless millennia of evolutionary programming. Luckily, it’s worth it!)

    That’s the trick, isn’t it… If we really are “naturally ‘groupist’”, can you teach that away? Are we doomed to an eternity of war, or prevention of war only by MAD, because we can’t get ourselves out of an evolutionary rut?

    (I hope it can be taught away, and I hope we’re able to escape that particular rut, but damned if I can figure out how!)

  5. 5
    Strewth

    ibbica – there may be a work-around, teaching the young that everyone they meet is ‘us’. Make the tribe infinitely inclusive.

  6. 6
    Scott Hanley

    I thought it had been established decades ago that the issue is difference, not what a specific difference is.

    That’s right about when I was attending my all-white junior high school, so … yeah. Can’t say I ever had an illusions that children aren’t disposed to identify in-groups v. out-groups.

  7. 7
    Chiroptera

    Gregory of Seattle, #1: I thought it had been established decades ago that the issue is difference, not what a specific difference is.

    There is also the question about what do you do about the difference. Do you just have a slightly less tendency to socialize with someone in the out-group? Or do you actively work to reduce the out-group to the status of heavily exploited serfs with few rights in practice?

  8. 8
    kosk11348

    “Racism isn’t born, folks, it’s taught. I have a two-year-old son. You know what he hates? Naps! End of list.” –Denis Leary

  9. 9
    baal

    What #5 said – teaching folks to identify with the larger groups is the way forward for everyone.

    Note that religionists and the fox branch of US thought works diligently to other and to get folks to narrow their identity groups. They even go so far as to push multiple narrow groups to create as many ‘others’ as possible.

    The left isn’t free of the urge to police folks for being bad “-ists” either. It’s not nearly as intentional as it is on the right but being anti-groupist is not a favored position.

  10. 10
    kermit.

    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.

    In the scientific community at least, it is not so much having a particular belief about X but rather how you arrived at it. Follow any scientific debate about a particular subject for which there is insufficient evidence and you can sometimes see name-calling, insults, and dirty politics but at no point are any of the scientists denied membership in the tribe.

    But reject Creationism and one is kicked out of the True Christian® tribe. Openly accept anthropogenic global warming and any politician is tossed out of the GOP inner circle.

    Scientists are a subgroup of skeptics, who are more often political progressives than not. The ideas that tie us together are not conclusions but rather processes. More precisely, metaphysics (the world is consistent) and epistemology (evidence trumps idle speculation, making crap up, or somebody else’s claim to divine inspiration). Our moral behavior is defined by laws derived from our basic values, applied to a complex world, rather than a list of required and forbidden behaviors handed to us by a moral authority (enforced by power; a cosmic or political parent).

  11. 11
    greenspine

    Betcha a Foxnews watcher’s amygdala would do a backflip if you snuck up on am and whispered ‘librul’ right in their ear.

    Can’t tell if this is intentionally ironic or just utterly un-self-aware.

  12. 12
    abb3w

    While this suggests racism is not an innate characteristic, more generally prejudice and ethnocentrism may be, even if the “race” construct is not necessarily the specific focus.

    Between them, RWA and SDO correlatively explain most forms of prejudice. However, they explain different kinds. RWA associates to prejudice against groups considered dangerous — IE, triggering fear response in the amygdala. SDO associates to prejudice against groups that are derrogated — IE, inspiring contempt. Whacking Google a bit this might be associated with the anterior insula. Both are prejudiced against dissident groups, which might associate to the anterior cingulate cortex or (negatively) to the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex.

    On the upside, SDO appears to be almost entirely environmentally learned, with a very low genetic component if any. However, while RWA also has a nontrivial environmental component, the genetic component appears as large or larger. So, while upbringing may reduce (or exacerbate) the tendency, and may change the focus, it’s probably not going away any time soon.

    @2, jamessweet:

    Contra the popular phrase, children don’t need to be taught to hate. But they do need to be taught who to hate.

    The full lyrics of “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught” (from “South Pacific”) make it clear that “who” is a big part of the lesson.

    ♫ You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late, ♫
    ♫ Before you are six or seven or eight, ♫
    ♫ To hate all the people your relatives hate, ♫
    ♫ You’ve got to be carefully taught! ♫

    (Please pardon my singing off-key.)

    So, apparently science now shows fourteen as the key age?

  13. 13
    Marcus Ranum

    kantalope writes:
    Betcha a Foxnews watcher’s amygdala would do a backflip if you snuck up on am and whispered ‘librul’ right in their ear.

    I misread that as “… in their right ear” and immediately thought it’d make a good experiment to see whether it lights up equally if you whisper it in their right ear or their left. Because, you know, left.

  14. 14
    Michael Heath

    I’ve been reading a lot about authoritarians lately, so I could be dangerous in not knowing what I don’t know. However I’ve come to humbly conclude that we can overcome our oblivious irrational tendencies by overtly, continually, and formally teaching critical thinking skills at all grade levels – K – PhD. A curriculum which should purposefully include case studies / story problems on human susceptibility to irrational thinking along with how to think one’s way into behaving in a rational manner in spite of tendencies to do otherwise in certain conditions.

    Self-realization, both of defective types of thinking and the context which spurs one to think irrationally, seems to me to be a powerful factor in overcoming one’s defective thinking defects. I’m sure other factors are also required to successfully overcome such tendencies as well but I focus here on this one.

    An example; as an optimist I found I was compartmentalizing faith, abandoning it as an older teen when it came to religion, but still somewhat obliviously depending on it when it came to other areas where one must make choices. So it took decades after I sided with King Evidence over religious faith to realize that faith on all matters is a juvenile character defect. I learned this simply by reading about how conservative Christians react to inconvenient truths and learned that I shared that same thinking on non-religious matters. I’m now far better at identifying motivated reasoning in myself and using this newly discovered realization as a check to slow down and analyze situations rather than leaping-in with faith things would turn out all right merely because of uh, I don’t know . . . karma?!?

  15. 15
    NitricAcid

    I currently live in a town without much genetic diversity- we have the First Nations and we have Caucasians, and very few people of recent Asian or African descent.

    When my son was about three, I took him to the farmer’s market in a much larger city. I stopped to sample some tea at one woman’s booth, and my son just stared at the woman. He didn’t want to try the tea, he didn’t want to move on to the next booth, and he wouldn’t speak to her. He just stared.

    It took me a few minutes to realize that she was probably the first black-skinned woman he’d ever seen.

  16. 16
    billydee

    I thought Amygdala was Luke Skywalker’s mother.(G’s following Y’s are silent in space.)
    In Chicago the summer I turned ten we moved from an integrated public housing project to an all-white ethnic neighborhood. A few days after we moved in I saw a black family drive down our street. I still haven’t gotten over the shock of seeing five-year-olds picking up rocks and throwing them at their car while shouting vile racial epithets. This wasn’t their amygdalas reaacting. I was also shocked to see how quickly and easily the rest of my family joined the crowd.

  17. 17
    hunter

    Evolution seems to have inclined us to readily define whole groups of people as the enemy. . . .

    I found the phrasing interesting. Maybe it’s just me, but I would have thought that evolution has inclined us to readily identify “us” and “other” — with “other” not necessarily being an enemy, but being strange and, possibly, threatening. (Remembering that one of our salient characteristics, in common with our nearest relatives, is curiosity.) I’m wondering if “other” doesn’t actually need a little massaging before it becomes “enemy.”

  18. 18
    Michael Heath

    billydee writes:

    In Chicago the summer I turned ten

    What year was that?

  19. 19
    heddle

    I grew up in a racially diverse inner-city neighborhood in Pittsburgh. Racism, at least as classically defined as an “us vs. them” and “they want to harm us” attitude, actual race-based violence and threats/fear of violence, and ubiquitous usage of racial epithets was de rigueur.

    I think I have to conclude that when they refer to racially diverse peer groups they do not mean neighborhoods like mine. They should, perhaps, distinguish between “healthy” racially diverse groups and “pathological” racially diverse groups.

  20. 20
    Deborah

    I grew up in an extremely UN diverse area, but without much overt racism. Race didn’t really come up, and unlike the children mentioned on here, I had seen people of other races, just not frequently. I find myself very unconscious of race, to an embarrassing extent at times – if I am not paying close attention to detail I will not only not recall a person’s hair color, height, weight, body type, facial features, age range and name, but I may not recall their color either. I have extreme difficulty recognizing faces if I don’t know the person, and can only remember what someone looks like if I have a sense of their personality to hang that picture on mentally. I sometimes will remember age, gender, name, hair style (but not color), and speech pattern before color. People are occasionally confused by this trait and usually don’t believe me. Today I live in a very diverse area, so it is sometimes a problem, and generally not recognizing faces makes things like watching television and working with the public more difficult.

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