HomeHeadlinesAre We Born Racist? A New Israeli Study Has Some Surprising Answers

Are We Born Racist? A New Israeli Study Has Some Surprising Answers


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.”

That’s amazing, and it also says that girls are less “group-oriented” than boys.

“Yes, you could say that, and it’s manifested in another interesting way, too. We told some of the children who took part in the study that the stickers they had belonged to the entire kindergarten, i.e., that they were a shared group resource. In these circumstances, the boys ‘saved’ them and didn’t give many away to the child on the screen − i.e., they preserved the group resources, while the girls ignored the group and were generous with the stickers.”

And in each case, the discrimination against members of the second group happened when the group membership was determined on a totally random, ad-hoc basis.

“This proves that categorizing into groups and discrimination on the basis of this categorization is an inherent trait. It was enough for us to tell the children that they were blues versus yellows to create an immediate rivalry. There was no connection to politics, social circumstances or their personal experience. Robert Kurzban, who worked with Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, some of the founders of ‘evolutionary psychology,’ argues that racism in the sense of discrimination on the basis of race is a wholly modern phenomenon. Ancient man lived in a world in which he only rarely, if ever, encountered people from another race and with an appearance much different from his own, so the human brain could not have evolved to distinguish between races. Thus, differentiation and discrimination among races is not something inherent in us. In fact, in studies that we’re conducting now in the lab, we’re seeing that infants do not distinguish between White people and Black people any more than they do between people wearing blue and people wearing red. This reinforces the argument that the categorical distinctions children make really derive from cultural cues. What is built in to the brain is the ability to distinguish between who is in ‘my’ group, and therefore with me, and who isn’t in my group and therefore apparently against me. A person needs a marker, a hint, to help him rapidly track alliances, in order to know where he stands and how to act, and race is not necessarily the relevant characteristic. Often, other characteristics take precedence over the racial characteristic. The research by Kurzban, Cosmides and Tooby shows that membership in the same basketball team, for instance, can be more important than race as a determinant of in- and out-groups.”

Go tell that to Beitar Jerusalem soccer fans.

“In Israel, because of the history and the political situation, religious-ethnic affiliation is the characteristic that most strongly determines the ancient alliances Kurzban and his colleagues talked about. Therefore, you find people who have a problem with Chechen Muslims being in their group. As we’ve said, all children, and then adults, arrange the world into categories, but the information that’s absorbed from the culture determines the specific characteristics used in this sorting.”

In recent years, more and more studies have shown that children, even infants, have a basic, innate sense of justice. Your studies, however, show that even young children favor those who are similar to them and discriminate against those who are different from them. The sad conclusion seems to be that we are born with a basic sense of justice, but that it’s directed only at those who are like us.

“I believe that children and infants can do both things. They have a concept of egalitarian and universal justice − for instance, they expect an equal division of resources. But at the same time, if you make them very aware of group membership, they will show preference for their in-group.”

Shared Tastes

Just how intuitive the preference for the inner group is – or how primal the human attempt to distinguish between our allies and our enemies – can be seen from studies currently being done with babies. Yes, babies. They may not be able to speak like adults or run through mazes like mice, but their intentions and preferences can be detected through sophisticated, carefully analyzed experiments. One of the most interesting researchers in this field is Prof. Kiley Hamlin of the University of British Columbia, who began working in the field while doing her doctorate at Yale.

Part Three

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