In the 10 Dec 2016 issue of the New Scientist there was a series of articles whose titles began super-you. HM is reviewing a select sample of these pieces. This instincts piece is written by Caroline Williams. HM does not like this use of the word “instincts.” “Predisposing biases” would have been a more fortunate choice. However, this article accounts for much of the ugliness prevalent throughout the world. The quick explanation is that these people are in their default mode of feeling and thinking. But this is a very low level of thinking. It is System 1 processing using Kahmeman’s terms.
The unpalatable truth is that we are biased, prejudiced and racist. We put people into mental boxes marked “us” and them”. Implicitly we like, respect and trust people who are similar to us and feel uncomfortable around everyone else. This tendency towards in-group favoritism is so ingrained that we often don’t realize we are doing it. “It is an evolutionary hangover affecting how the human brain responds to people it perceives as different.
A study from 2000 found that just showing participants brief flashes of faces of people of a different race was enough to activate the amygdala (Neuroreport 11(11):2351-5, September 2000 can be found at researchgate.net). HM readers should know that the amygdala is a key component of the brain’s fear circuitry. But the amygdala doesn’t just control fear; it responds to many things and calls on other brain areas to pay attention. Although we’re not automatically scared of people who are not like us, we are hardwired to flag them. As Williams notes, “evolutionarily, that makes sense: It paid to notice when someone from another tribe dropped by.”
When Susan Fiske of Princeton University scanned volunteers’ brains as they looked at pictures of homeless people, she found that the prefrontal cortex, which is activated when we think about other people, stayed quiet. Apparently these volunteers seemed to process these homeless people as subhuman (Social cognitive ad affective neuroscience, 2007 Mar. 2(1) 45-51.)
Fiske says “The good news is that his hard-wired response can be overcome depending on context.” In both the homeless study and a rerun of the amygdala study Fiske found that fear or indifference quickly disappeared when participants were asked questions about what kind of food the other person might enjoy, Fiske continues, “As soon as you have a basis for dealing with a person as an individual, the effect is not there.”
What we put in “them” and “us” boxes is flexible. Jay Van Bavel of New York University created in-groups including people from various races, participants still preferred people in their own group, regardless of race. It seems that all you have to do to head off prejudice is to convince people that they are on the same team (Pers Soc Psychol Bull, December 2012, 38, 12, 2012 1566-1578. pop.sagepub.com).
It appears that we are instinctively cooperative when we don’t have time to think about it. Psychologist David Rand of Yale University asked volunteers to play gambling games in which they could choose to be selfish, or corporate with other players or a slightly lower, but shared, payoff. When pressed to make a decision people were much more likely to cooperate than when given time to mull it over.
Williams concludes her article thusly: “So perhaps you’re not an asshole after all—If you know when to stop to think about it and when to go with your gut. Maybe, just maybe, there is hope for the world.”
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