Cooperation Against Racism

– Tom Uytterhoeven –

Although I am not a scientist, I think this is a great experiment. It shows us what mechanisms lie beneath ugly features of human social living, like racism and gender discrimination. Moreover, it shows us how to decrease the prevalence of these features, at least in the case of racism. Let me quote three important statements by the researchers:

“This study tests the model that the mind cares about physical features only to the extent that they suggest social relationships,” explained Pietraszewski. “It shows that the reason the mind attends to race at all is to keep track of people’s affiliations. When race proves not to be a factor, the alliance detection system attends to it only minimally, if at all.”

According to Tooby, when race does not predict who’s on what side of an issue or who’s supporting whom, the mind discards it as an element for identifying alliances. “Traditionally, the general impression people had was that when you learn to be racist, it gets deeply inscribed and sneaks out in subtle ways and it’s slow to change,” he explained. “One of the striking implications of this research is that the tendency to categorize by race is easy to eliminate.”

“If categorizing individuals by race is a reversible product of a cognitive system specialized for detecting alliance categories, changing behavior might have more powerful effects than changing minds, the researchers said. “Many people assume you need to change how people think about racial issues to eliminate racism,” Cosmides explained. “This research suggests that if cooperation across racial lines continues to increase in our society, our tendency to think about people in racial terms will fall away. Cooperation should change how people think.”

Cooperation, setting shared goals and striving to reach those together, seems key. That is something we should be able to integrate in education rather easily. Or am I too naive here?

It might of course be the case that the effect is only temporarily, a bit like a 'Band of Brothers' effect. Once the goals are reached, racism raises its ugly head again, something like that. But then again, maybe that just depends on the kind of goals you're setting. E.g. Christianity has the 'Kingdom of God', a kind of 'eschatological goal': a goal that can be fully realised only at the end of times. That would be a good candidate, I believe, for setting a goal with long term effects on discrimination.

It might of course also be the case that we would just be replacing one kind of exclusivist thinking ('My race is the best and should come first') with another ('The goal of my group is best and should come first'), leading to essentially the same kinds of conflicts as before. That would be another explanation for conflicts between religious communities, depending less on the assumption that religions are fundamentalist as e.g. New Atheism does, and giving the initial intention of religious people to do good more recognition. But it would still – and in fact I believe it is – be one of the major challenges that the different world views that exist today, religious or not, face. Maybe scientific research, like the example that inspired me to write this short blogpost, can help us to overcome that challenge, even only by making us more aware of the processes that lead good intentions to go haywire.

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