The Racism Bias

The tendency to avoid and mistreat people who look different.

It's innate to be repulsed by people who have different belief systems. We wonder, "Where'd they get such twisted ideas?" and "I'm right, they're loco." It's so easy to loathe people who look different. "Their nose is so wide?" and  "They wear funny clothes." We do not relate well to otherness.  We become gripped by an avoidance reflex, a self-protection mechanism which is, sadly, a totally natural impulse. So why blame ourselves for racism when we're born hugely tribal? Why not? Blame, in this instance, seems sane.

"We have a natural aversion to Others, and we show a remarkable ability to sort people into in-group/out-group categories on the most minute levels of criteria—think of such gangs are the Crips and the Bloods, or such ethnic disputes as those between the Hutus and the Tutsis, or the Shiites and the Sunnis. Although we have educated and legislated these ancient tribal rituals out of our culture, their psychological underpinnings are still buried deep in our Paleolithic brains, waiting to be stirred into action." writes Michael Shermer in his bestseller The Mind of the Market.

The Difficulty of Loving Strangers

Over at Not Exactly Rocket Science, Ed Yong has a great post on a new study looking at oxytocin, a brain hormone that’s typically associated with feelings of trust and love. The hormone pours into the bloodstream, for instance, during childbirth, triggering contractions and child-mother bonding. (Synthetic versions of oxytocin, such as pitocin, are used to induce labor.) In recent years, the chemical also been linked to Prairie vole monogamy, increased generosity in the Ultimatum Game and trusting behavior when making risky investments. Such research has led, inevitably, to idiotic products like this:
This new study, however, complicates the feel good narrative. It turns out that oxytocin isn’t simply a chemical version of social affection. Here’s Yong, summarizing the work of Carsten de Dreu at the University of Amsterdam:
De Dreu asked 280 Dutch men to take three puffs form an oxytocin nose-spray, or a placebo that contained the same mixture without the hormone. It was a “double-blind” study – neither de Dreu nor the men knew who had been given what until the results were in.
First, de Dreu looked for any hidden biases in the volunteers’ reactions to German, Arab or other Dutch men. He used an ‘implicit association test, where volunteers used two keys to categorise words into different groups (e.g. Dutch names or German/Arab names, or positive and negative). Combinations of categories that contradict our biases should subtly slow our reaction times. If people are biased against Arab people, they’d take longer to finish the test if the same key was assigned to both Arab names and positive words. These “implicit associations” are very hard to fake, especially if the test is done at speed.
Sure enough, oxytocin strengthened the biases of the Dutch volunteers. When they sniffed oxytocin (rather than the placebo), they were quicker to associate positive words with Dutch names than with either German or Arab ones.
Finally, de Dreu showed that these shifting biases could affect the moral choices we make. He presented volunteers with a famous series of moral dilemmas. For example, a runaway rail trolley is hurtling towards five people who are about to be killed unless you flip a switch that diverts the trolley into the path of just one person. All of the dilemmas took the same form – you weigh the lives of one person against a group. And in all the cases, the lone person had either a Dutch, German or Arab name, while the group were nameless.
After a sniff of placebo, the Dutch volunteers were just as likely to sacrifice the single person, no matter what name they had. But after sniffing oxytocin, they were far less likely to sacrifice the Dutch loners than the German and Arab ones.
This suggests that the feelings of trust and warmth triggered by oxytocin come with a hidden cost, in that we become less likely to trust “outsiders.” Although the chemical sharpens our positive feelings towards those we already know and understand, it also exaggerates the perceived differences between our in-group and everyone else. There is no love for all.