Overcoming Our Biases
The Mike Myer Sunday column of February 3 poses a question: “Do we still have a race problem in America?” The answer is a resounding “Yes!!!!!” Several factors perpetuate it. One is that the brain perceives differences in physical features of objects and faces such as shape, size, color. A limited but definite set of neurons perceives these differences in faces. Another factor is that cultures attach values to and develop preferences for certain features over others. Yet another factor is that one generation transmits these value-based preferences to another. We teach children what the society prefers and that its preferred qualities are ideal.
Laboratory experiments have demonstrated that both animals and people formulate an “average” from the various faces they first see and that the brain compares new faces to this average. The greater the variation a given face has from this constructed average, the greater the likelihood of a negative reaction to the person. Different factors appear to be important at different times of life.
Color is one of the first differences noticed. For example, one study of 3-year-olds’ perception of race showed that light-skinned toddlers perceived their darker-skinned peers as being “dirty.” Because parents punish children for getting dirty, the child brain reasons that dark-skinned children are “bad.” Does such an early judgment error persist as a foundational belief at some level even as the child develops? At this point, we don’t know for sure.
What we do know is that in the earliest cultures, conformity to norms of both appearance and behavior is incredibly important to a group’s survival. Misbehavior is publicly punished; chronic misbehavior is punished by exile or death. Defeat of an enemy with substantially different norms often results in genocide. Insistence on absolute conformity very gradually lessens over time. Serious misbehavior comes to be punished by shunning or imprisonment; defeated enemies may be enslaved when that can be a valuable source of needed labor. The pre-industrial society imposes severe penalties for dissenting, advocating of new ideas or practices, and especially demanding for rights for the minority.
It is only when industrialization and economic specialization become important in a society that it begins to transition from being held together by shared values and norms to being held together by interdependence necessitated by increasing complexity. We gradually become more tolerant of differences between and among people because we need to have what other people can do for us or what they make for us.
However, the basic brain functions of perceiving differences still operate. We also retain vestiges of values and ideals introduced in the distant past. Americans implanted and nurtured the belief that African slaves were mentally deficient as an element of justifying slavery. When we ended slavery and allowed African-Americans to demonstrate their abilities, recognition of their achievement added the phrase “and a credit to his/her race.” It was as if achievement by African-American was some sort of miracle. We have been slow to separate the variables of intelligence, achievement, and race in assessments.
Our brains will always see differences between faces and bodies. But as humans, we have the capacity to change the meanings our brains attach to what they perceive. It takes considerable intellectual investment for us to recognize and overcome biases and prejudices engendered by cultural heritage, many of which we absorbed without really being aware that we were absorbing them. That work, if it is to be done, must be done by every individual. The broader society can help by working to scrub the messages transmitted by various media. But most of the helping must be done by parents and small groups.