Your Brain and Discrimination

19 August 2015

Discrimination and prejudice is rampant in every human society, often in ways we are not consciously aware of. However, with self-regulation and education we can work towards a more understanding world.

Discrimination can be defined as behaviours or actions (usually negative) towards an individual or group. Social dynamics of this nature often arise because people tend to show group favouritism toward those who have a shared membership in a social group (in-group) and discrimination to those not part of their group (out-group). Social groups can be anything from rival tennis teams to groupings based on gender, sexual orientation or race. In one classic study by Tajifel (1970) participants were told that they were grouped based on their artistic preferences, despite actually being randomly assigned. They found that even without intergroup conflict, people still discriminated against out-group members. This shows that people are highly sensitive to grouping, even when the groups are arbitrary.

Self-esteem is also thought to be tied up in social groupings, in that people will try to explain away in-group members’ indiscretions to save their own self esteem. This is the “ultimate attribution error”, which is the tendency for people to explain in-group members’ bad behaviour as due to chance or circumstance, while explaining out-group members’ bad behaviour as due to a personality defect. For example, one study found that white students were more likely to interpret an ambiguous shove as violent, and explain the shove to be due to the disposition of the person shoving, if the shove came from a black person, rather than a white person.

This exact kind of discrimination can be seen in the media today. After the Charleston shooting in America, the violent racial hate crime (where a 21-year-old white male killed nine people in a church) headlines were seen to include phrases like “confused, troubled childhood then racial radicalisation”. You would not see this kind of headline regarding someone who was not an in-group member. An out-group member’s act of terror would be called just that, an act of terror.

Despite these processes being largely unconscious in nature, we can still work to stop them. Discrimination and prejudice can be overcome by being exposed to and/or actively working together with people in the out-group in question. They can also be overcome with conscious effort and education. If you take the time to understand your negative stereotypes and work to correct your automatic prejudices toward people belonging to groups other than yours, you too can become a warrior against discrimination. Stand together, friends.

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