We're prejudiced, now what?

Scientists now tell us bias toward others may be innate. But that doesn't mean we have to behave like Bill O'Reilly.

Published October 31, 2007 11:00AM (EDT)

All good people agree,
And all good people say,
All nice people, like Us, are We
And every one else is They

-- Rudyard Kipling

I am stuck in rush-hour traffic. Maybe I can find a decent radio program to distract myself from the blasting horns, angry looks and cussing behind rolled-up windows. But the radio is worse than the traffic. On NPR, a Washington think tank guru is arguing that "my 30-plus years of studying the Middle East has convinced me that democracy is more appropriate for some cultures than others." A second NPR station is airing a debate on the medical rights of "illegal aliens." On Fox, Bill O'Reilly is talking about a recent dinner in Harlem, N.Y., with Al Sharpton: "I couldn't get over the fact that there was no difference between Sylvia's restaurant and any other restaurant in New York City. I mean, it was exactly the same, even though it's run by blacks."

Everywhere I turn, someone is honking at the other guy. Once upon a time, when psychology was king of the behavioral hill, I thought that prejudice could be explained by upbringing, cultural influences, socioeconomic disparities and plain old wrong thinking. Despite any hard evidence from soft sciences, I nursed the vaguely optimistic belief that education and the teaching of tolerance might make a dent in the bigotry and racism of "others." And yet sitting in stalled traffic, I cannot shake the irrational feeling that "those in the other cars" are different from "us in our car." If my mind seems intent upon making such ludicrous and meaningless distinctions, is there more here than meets the purely psychological I?

Psychologists have long talked about our tendency to form "in groups" based upon skin color, accents (the Parisian vs. the "country French") and hairstyle (try to look at green spiked hair and a crew cut without drawing inferences of fundamental differences in personality). In his 1954 book, "The Nature of Prejudice," psychologist Gordon Allport observed that many white Americans live in a "state of conflict." On one hand, they may be ideologically opposed to prejudice, but on the other, they possess underlying tendencies to think and act in racially biased ways.

Neuroscience is now providing tantalizing hints as to how these tendencies might occur. In 2000, two fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) studies allowed the first visualizations of the underlying neuroanatomy of prejudice. In one study, Allan Hart, an Amherst social psychologist, found that when white and black subjects were given brief subliminal glimpses of faces of the other race, both showed increased activity in the amygdala, a small set of nuclei within the medial temporal lobes, believed to be responsible for processing the emotional significance of a stimulus.

In a separate study, New York University neuroscientist Elizabeth Phelps found that the degree of increased amygdala activity directly correlated with both physiological and psychological testing evidence for prejudiced responses. Most important, these biased subjects were unaware of having seen the faces or of having any emotional response. Based upon these and subsequent confirming studies, the amygdala is now thought to be integral to the biology of unconscious discrimination.

Given that the amygdala has long been recognized to be instrumental in emotional processing, particularly in relationship to learning, perception and expression of fear, it has seemed reasonable to interpret such studies as showing that viewing different-colored skin might trigger fear or apprehension. However, Phelps and others have cautioned that the amygdala also responds more generally to the emotional intensity of a stimulus -- not only fear but also ambiguity, vigilance and even some states of uncertainty that can have a positive outcome. So, given our present state of knowledge, fMRI activation of the amygdala should not be taken as unequivocal evidence that the fear and anxiety are the primary unconscious responses to racial or ethnic differences; the activation could represent a nonspecific state of heightened emotional arousal.

Naturally, evolutionary biologists are quick to point out the obvious adaptive benefits of immediate unconscious recognition of any difference that might indicate a potential enemy or predator. UCLA anthropologist Rob Boyd has written extensively that being attuned to ethnic differences allows individuals to identify others who share the same cultural norms; sharing similar expectations makes social interaction a lot easier than mixing it up with those with different expectations.

At an equally basic neural level, reflexive detection of differences is an essential aspect of how we learn through pattern recognition. For example, the brain contains primary modules for distinguishing colors. These neural systems operate outside of awareness. One cannot choose not to see a color difference. Even at a young age, such differences contribute to our worldview. According to studies by University of Michigan psychologist Lawrence Hirschfeld, 3-year-old children already attribute significance to skin color and appear to believe that race is the most important physical characteristic in determining what sort of person one is.

The evidence is pouring in; at bottom, we seem programmed to seek out and create meaning out of perceived differences. The question that continues to hound me: Is it possible to break this cycle of prejudgment?

A relatively new and utterly intriguing approach to seeing how prejudice may have evolved and taken root in our brains is "agent-based computational modeling." This imposing mouthful is nothing more than a clever description of using computers to study how complex systems arise out of basic elements. The technique is relatively straightforward. You create tiny computer programs (agents) with only a few sets of instructions. You then place them on a computer grid and watch their interactions over thousands of trial periods.

Such computer models are now commonly used to predict such disparate activities as consumer behavior, seasonal migration of birds, sexual reproduction, the transmission of diseases and even how culture spreads and becomes established. In evolutionary models, individual characteristics and behavioral strategies can be followed over multiple generations to see how successful behaviors gradually gain dominance. It is presumed that, over time, the optimal strategy for survival will emerge from initially random encounters.

Using this technique, University of Michigan political scientist Robert Axelrod and his colleague Ross Hammond of the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., have studied how ethnocentric behavior may have evolved even in the absence of any initial bias or prejudice. To make the model as simple as possible, they made each agent one of four possible colors. None of the colors was given any positive or negative ranking with respect to the other colors; in the beginning, all colors were created equal. The agents were then provided with instructions (simple algorithms) as to possible ways to respond when encountering another agent. One algorithm specified whether or not the agent cooperated when meeting someone of its own color. The other algorithm specified whether or not the agent cooperated with agents of a different color.

The scientists defined an ethnocentric strategy as one in which an agent cooperated only with other agents of its own color, and not with agents of other colors. The other strategies were to cooperate with everyone, cooperate with no one and cooperate only with agents of a different color. Since only one of the four possible strategies is ethnocentric and all were equally likely, random interactions would result in a 25 percent rate of ethnocentric behavior. Yet their studies consistently demonstrated that greater than three-fourths of the agents eventually adopted an ethnocentric strategy. In short, although the agents weren't programmed to have any initial bias for or against any color, they gradually evolved an ethnocentric preference for one's own color at the expense of those of another color.

Axelrod and Hammond don't claim that their studies duplicate the real-world complexities of prejudice and discrimination. But it is hard to ignore that an initially meaningless trait morphed into a trigger for group bias. Contrary to how most of us see bigotry and prejudice as arising out of faulty education and early-childhood indoctrination, Axelrod's model doesn't begin with preconceived notions about the relative values of different colors, nor is it associated with any underlying negative emotional state such as envy, frustration or animosity. Detection of a difference, no matter how innocent, is enough to result in ethnocentric strategies.

Even more striking, there isn't any conventional "thought" associated with this prejudice; it emerges in the same way as ants build ant colonies, and cities and societies form without prior planning or specific intention. Nowhere in the agent's minuscule "mind" is there any line of code on how best to proceed; there is no built-in suggestion that discrimination might provide better rates of reproduction or survival.

In "The Selfish Gene," Richard Dawkins said in his characteristic blunt manner, "We are survival machines -- robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes." No matter how inflammatory Dawkins' rhetoric might sound, his observation is consistent with the conclusions of Axelrod's agent-modeling studies.

So is this powerful self-interest strategy truly in the genes, and even if it is, can it be modified by experience and education? It's clear that ethnocentricity is the optimal strategy when mutual distrust is the default position between different groups. But a variety of game theory simulations, like the prisoner's dilemma, designed to study cooperation vs. noncooperation between two people or groups, suggest that under certain circumstances, mutual cooperation is the preferable strategy.

In a worldwide competition held by Axelrod, academics were asked to create a variety of programs for how agents might best interact for long-term survival. The winner was a simple program, tit for tat, which specified that an agent would always cooperate with another agent at their first encounter; after that, one agent would adopt whatever strategy the opponent demonstrated. If the other guy (agent) responds favorably to your initial offer, cooperation ensues. If the opponent rejects cooperation, you abandon niceness and revert to mutual mistrust. Tit for tat showed that a single attempt at cooperation, prior to knowing how the other agent would respond, resulted in a better long-term outcome for both agents. Trust, in other words, is good.

If such computer simulations are applicable to human behavior, the moral is transparently frustrating. In meeting someone perceived as being different, we must offer initial trust and cooperation without any guarantee that the other person will reciprocate. But anyone who has resolved to adopt the doctrine of unilateral compassion and "turn the other cheek" knows how difficult such self-sacrificing behavior is to initiate unilaterally.

The encouraging news: Axelrod has used such studies to show how cooperative behavior can evolve from mechanisms that, by natural selection, are inherently selfish. The not-so-good news: It isn't at all clear how humans can overcome basic emotions such as fear, anger, the urge for retribution or just a heightened emotional arousal that make initial cooperation so antithetical to how we normally react to perceived differences.

Nevertheless, Elizabeth Phelps has repeatedly emphasized that the behavioral studies demonstrating unconscious bias "do not indicate that this behavior is 'hard-wired,' or unchangeable." In her 2000 study, she demonstrated that our unconscious biased responses (amygdala activation) can be significantly reduced by experience and familiarity. In other words, emergent prejudiced behavior isn't an inescapable aspect of our biology.

Admittedly, one of the greatest obstacles to a frank discussion of bias is the repugnance of prejudice. As ugly traits go, racist and bigot are right up there with pedophile and cannibal. But somehow we need to get over our puritanical revulsion with aspects of our biology that we find morally unacceptable. Being politically correct and denying the presence of unconscious bias has been shown to have its own downside. In a clever fMRI study, psychologist Jennifer Richeson has demonstrated that trying not to have inappropriate racial thoughts can actually tax brain activity and result in lesser performance on psychological tests that require maximal attention and concentration.

There's no doubt that ethnocentric philosophies can be deliberate attempts to justify everything from eugenics to xenophobia. But cognitive science is also showing how many of our thoughts begin outside of awareness. It isn't much of a leap to believe that conscious thoughts, including racist or ethnocentric beliefs, are after-the-fact rationalizations for unconscious behaviors that have survival benefits. (In fMRI studies, activation of the amygdala corresponded with the subjects making racially biased decisions, despite being unaware of feeling any bias.) If so, we shouldn't be surprised that the most cogent arguments against discrimination rarely shake biased beliefs.

For me, real bigotry begins with the hubris and arrogance of those like Bill O'Reilly who insist that their assessment of others is purely based upon reason and conscious deliberation, as opposed to being colored by involuntary and unrecognized elements of prejudice. For us to treat others with real trust, we must begin by acknowledging our biases and consciously doing the hard mental work to overcome them. We may not be able to prevent biased opinions from arising, but we do retain the veto power over whether to believe in and act on them.

We are left with two options. We can pretend we are free of bias, and avoid thinking about how to deal with our own deeply ingrained tendency to discriminate. Or we can take a lesson from neuroscience, and even from dumb computer agents, which can switch from noncooperation to cooperation if they learn that it is in their best interests.

By Robert Burton

Robert Burton M.D. is the former chief of neurology at Mount Zion-UCSF Hospital and the author of "On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not" and "A Skeptic's Guide to the Mind." A former columnist for Salon, he has also been published in the New York Times, Aeon and Nautilus, and currently writes a column at the Cambridge Quarterly for Healthcare Ethics.

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