Is racial discrimination innate or learned? Are humans programmed to prefer their own group over others? Prof. Gil Diesendruck of Bar-Ilan University’s Psychology Department and Gonda Brain Research Center tries to answer these questions.
Whites are being persecuted for our innate nature. No other group is persecuted for having this same “racist” innate nature.
we showed children a drawing of an Arab boy and we said that he likes to play a game called Jimjam (a made-up name). We also showed them a Jewish girl, and we said she likes to play a game called Tibbits (another made-up name). When we showed them an Arab girl and asked what she likes to play with, most of the children inferred that she likes to play Jimjam. They deduced it on the basis of the ethnicity category rather than going by the gender category.”
They disregarded gender.
“Relative to ethnicity, gender was less significant, as was personality. We presented a shy Arab boy playing Jimjam and an outgoing Jewish boy playing Tibbits, and we asked what would an outgoing Arab boy play with? [Also less significant were] social class (rich versus poor) and religiosity (religious versus secular). In other words: The children viewed the individuals that belonged to the same ethnicity as sharing greater similarity than individuals that shared the same gender, personality or social class.
“We also wanted to see whether the children think ethnic membership is determined by the environment or if it is inherited. We told them a story about a Jewish couple that has a baby, but since they work very hard and are busy, they give the baby to an Arab couple to care for. We asked them what they thought the baby would be when he grew up − Jew or Arab? Most of the children said he would be Jewish even though he was taken care of by Arabs. We told them similar stories in which the contrast between the biological and caretaking couples was different − e.g., the biological couple is rich and the caretaking couple is poor, or the first likes cats and the second likes dogs, etc. The characteristic that was viewed as the most biological, as the one that would stay with the baby even when raised by other parents, was ethnicity.”
The race factor
In other words, Israeli children perceive ethnicity as a fundamental characteristic: All members of the group have the same qualities, and this category is also thought to have a racial element: biological, inherited and unchangeable. Does the same hold true in other countries?
“All children in the world see human beings as belonging to different groups, and everywhere they view certain social categories in an essentialist way, i.e., as natural, homogeneous, hereditary and inalterable groups. But the degree of importance of each category varies according to the culture. In the United States, for example, the race factor is the most important, because this is something that is talked about a lot, and this has also been found to grow stronger with age; 10-year-olds ascribe more importance to it than 5-year-olds do.”
So the factors that contribute to categorization are basically cultural and environmental, and develop with age?
“The specific characteristics used as a basis for categorization depend on the culture and the environment, but the tendency to sort people into groups and this essentialist belief about them is something natural. Innate even. It’s something that quite surprised us, because you might think children are born without any social biases, and that they only develop this essentialist belief as a result of a certain kind of upbringing. But what we found was just the opposite: Children start out with this essentialist tendency, and only a particular kind of education can lead them to develop a different, more open attitude.”
How did you test this?
“We studied children aged 5, 8 and 12 from different educational systems: Jewish children who attended regular, ‘mainstream’ Jewish schools; Arab children in regular Arab schools, and Jewish and Arab children who studied together at bilingual schools that combine students and teachers from both ethnicities.
“We found that in all the groups, the 5-year-olds were equally essentialist, and to a high degree. That is, they all perceived the other ethnic group as very different, as homogeneous, and so on. As they got older, those who went to a regular school remained essentialist, but those who went to an integrated school with Arabs and Jews together, became less and less essentialist. The implication is that the environment doesn’t create essentialism; it’s there from the start. Environment and education only strengthen or temper it.”
So we’re born with the ability, the impulse even, to sort people into groups?
“It’s an evolutionary need, and therefore it’s an intuitive and universal trait. In the ancient world, but also today in certain situations, it was important for a person to be able to map and sort the people around him, to quickly define who is in my group − the in-group versus the other group, the out-group.
“This division has two complementary evolutionary advantages: On the one hand, defining the in-group creates cohesion among its members, cooperation and the possibility of achieving things as a group: finding food, staking out living space, and so on. At the same time, defining the out-group leads me to be alert and cautious toward its members who are competing with me for resources and may also threaten me.”
Which leads us to the subject of racism and discrimination, which is more than just a sorting of people into different groups. It’s the idea that my group is better than the others, and the actions that derive from this thinking: discrimination in favor of members of my group and against the others. When does this begin?
“This, too, has been observed in very young children. They favor their in-group over the out-group. Take this experiment, for example: We divided 3- and 4-year-olds into two groups − the ‘blue group’ and the ‘yellow group.’ Each member of the blue group watched a computer screen where the image of another child appeared. Sometimes we said the child on the screen also belonged to the blue group, and sometimes that he was a member of the yellow group. We gave the child watching the screen stickers and told him he could share them with the children who appeared on screen however he liked. The girls distributed the stickers to all the children equally, regardless of what group they belonged to, but the boys gave more stickers to members of their in-group − the blues − than to the members of the out-group − the yellows.
“Later on, we told the children that some of the children on the screen like the stickers and some really don’t like them, and then this happened: When the child on the screen belonged to the in-group, the boys and girls showed consideration for his preference: They gave a lot to the ones who liked stickers and only a few to the ones who didn’t. When the child was from the out-group, the girls didn’t take his preference into consideration − all were given the same number of stickers − while the boys discriminated much more strongly. If the child liked stickers they gave him just a few and if he didn’t like them, they gave him a lot. Not only were they inconsiderate toward the members of the out-group, they were ready to give up their own stickers in order to provoke them or hurt them.”