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

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


“We showed babies two bowls,” she says when interviewed by telephone. “One filled with green beans and the other with graham crackers. Believe it or not, more than a quarter of the babies chose the green beans, an interesting finding in itself, but that’s not the key thing, of course.

“The key thing is that after the baby chose one type of food, we put on a little puppet show for him with two puppets: one that liked the food he chose, and one that liked the other food better. When we let the babies choose one of the puppets, they chose the puppet that liked the same food they did.”

The puppet that is similar to them.

“Yes. They perceived which one shared the same taste as theirs and preferred it over the one they identified as different. In the next stage, we showed each baby the similar puppet (that shared the same taste) playing ball in the presence of two dog puppets. Every so often, the ball rolled toward one of the dogs. One dog was good: When the ball came to him, he rolled it back to the puppet. The second dog, the bad one, grabbed the ball and ran away. Then we let the baby choose between the dogs. He chose the good dog.”

Not surprising.

“But then an interesting thing happened. When the puppet that played with the ball was the dissimilar puppet ‏[the one with different taste‏], the babies actually favored the bad dog, the one that stole the ball from it.”

In other words − they favored the one that hurt the one who was different from them, in keeping with the notion that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

“Exactly. It appears that there’s an intuitive leaning, inborn or at least very primal, by which I favor those who are good to those I like because they are similar to me, and I also favor those who are bad to those I don’t like because they are different from me. In both cases, I favor those who share something in common with me, sympathy or lack of sympathy for someone, and this creates a connection between us. In other words, the baby’s positive attitude toward those who are similar to him and his negative attitude toward those who are dissimilar were so strong that they also determined the baby’s attitude toward a third party.

“An alternative explanation is that what we witnessed was simple schadenfreude − the feeling that the other, the one who is different, is deserving of punishment or should be poorly treated.”

How old were these babies?

“We tested 200 babies at two ages − 9 months and 14 months. With the 9-month-olds, 75 percent of them wanted the dog who was good to the similar puppet, but by age 14 months, 100 percent chose that puppet. In the experiment with the dissimilar puppet, 81 percent of the 9-month-olds chose the dog that was bad to it, and at 14 months, all of them chose it.”

In other words, the preference for that which is similar to you is a primal trait that evolves with age?

“There appears to be a maturing of the mechanism for identifying and favoring those similar to oneself, and this is apparently linked to the later development of the tendency to favor the group that is similar to me − the in-group − to the group of those who are dissimilar − the out-group. This favoring mechanism basically says that behavior is not good or bad per se; rather, it depends on the social context and my closeness to the involved parties.”

A “clan” approach.

“It’s even more complex than that. In a series of experiments we’re doing now, which haven’t yet been published, we’re seeing that the attitude of someone who is similar or dissimilar to me toward a third party whom I don’t know also affects my attitude toward that stranger.

“The experiment goes like this: We show a baby two brief plays. One time, the star of the show is the similar puppet ‏[who likes the same food he does] and one time it’s the dissimilar puppet. Together with the puppet, there are also two dogs with a ball on stage. One dog is treated well by the puppet. When he gives the puppet the ball, the puppet gives it back to him. The second dog receives poor treatment. The puppet grabs his ball and runs away. Then we let the baby choose between the dogs. Will it favor the one the puppet was nice to or the one the puppet was mean to?”

And the results?

“Well, it’s interesting that in these experiments, a single experience is not enough for the baby. He needs to see twice that the puppet is treating the strange dog nicely or not nicely in order to draw conclusions. And then, when the puppet he sees in the play is the one who is similar to him, the baby chooses the dog that was treated nicely.

“When it’s the puppet that’s different from him, he’ll actually prefer the dog that was treated poorly.”

Because if the puppet that’s different from me was unkind to the dog, it’s a sign that the dog might be worth something. So it seems that, contrary to what Jean-Jacques Rousseau said, a baby is not a “perfect idiot.”

“Definitely not. What we’ve observed here are rather complex social deductions. The basis for these deductions may be very incomplete and indirect, and not take details and nuances into account, but it enables me to situate myself automatically very quickly.”

It’s as if the baby is forming a coalition that includes him, those who are similar to him, those who receive good treatment from those who are similar to him, and those who receive bad treatment from those who are different from him.

“It is a coalition, one that can help me manage in conditions of war or when under threat by foreigners, and all of this − remember − is unconnected to color, race, ethnicity or gender, and does not derive from any newsworthy information the baby has received.

“The preferences are essentially based on a similarity in tastes. So our favoring of those who are like us over those who are different is biologically inherent, as are the conclusions we draw about the other that derives from this preference.”

And this is what gives rise to discrimination.

“Ironically, what enabled us to survive throughout evolution may be to our detriment today, as we also apply this strategy when it’s not relevant to survival. So it’s important to distinguish between situations of war and menace, and everyday life, where the use of such strategies creates injustice and discrimination.”

That’s easy to say. But if our natural tendency is to see ourselves as belonging to a privileged group that deserves priority, and if our intuitive outlook is that those who are different from us should be discriminated against, doesn’t this mean that chauvinism and discrimination are inevitable?

“This doesn’t mean that disliking those who are different is obligatory, any more than it is obligatory that men cheat on their wives or other such things that may have been common in our evolutionary history. Rather, it tells us something about the processes by which humans tend to divide up the world, and about how we might discourage such thinking in our children today, in a global society in which differences abound.

“For instance, parents and teachers might be careful to use language that discusses the levels at which we are all very similar to each other, at the same time as they note ‏(and celebrate‏) our differences.

“It is important to recognize that there are plenty of things that babies do‏(for example, not using the toilet, not knowing calculus‏) that we encourage them to change through socialization, and which they do change, rarely if ever returning to their initial tendencies once the proper socialization has occurred.”

Prof. Diesendruck agrees that our primal instincts can be modified by education. “The less familiar a child is with the other group, the more he perceives the differences between the groups as deep and essential. In our studies with children attending integrated schools, daily contact enabled them to see that many seemingly ‘essential’ traits are not valid, and this happened within a year and a half. It’s important to talk about people as individuals: This is Mohammed, that’s Tomer and this is Anna. When you ascribe to a person a unique identity, the tendency to relate to him as a member of a group is diminished.”


Chaim Gil, the Holocaust survivor, admits that it’s not easy to maneuver between the ability to make intelligent generalizations based on experience and the tendency to make categorizations that border on racism. “But it is possible,” he says. “I overheard a conversation between my 9-year-old granddaughter and a friend her age. She told her friend that the day before, she went to Jerusalem with her family and Haredim attacked the car and hurled bags of water at it. Her friend was horrified and said, ‘Yes, Haredim are very violent people.’ My granddaughter said: ‘It’s not nice to make generalizations. Not all Haredim are violent.’ And her friend hastened to correct herself: ‘Sorry, I meant to say that there are a very few Haredim who are violent.’ To which the first girl replied: ‘No need to exaggerate. Not so few. There are plenty of violent Haredim …’ I saw it as a heroic attempt, one that could set an example.”

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