The Science behind Bigotry

Varad Patankar
4 min readJun 20, 2021

“When an apple has ripened and falls, why does it fall? Because of its attraction to the earth, because its stalk withers, because it is dried by the sun, because it grows heavier, because the wind shakes it, or because the boy standing below wants to eat it?

Nothing is the cause. All this is only the coincidence of conditions in which all vital organic and elemental events occur.”

Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace

Racism, Xenophobia, Homophobia etc. frequently make the headlines these days. Most of these reports oversimplify these phenomena as a “social construct” or an “imagined reality”. In your face awareness campaigns are done in a bid to cure people of this disease. While the societal factor is a contributor, two other causes — biological and practical, get side-lined during conversations. Admitting this is inconvenient and embarrassing but it holds the key to reducing prejudices.

Neuroscience of Us vs Them

We are fundamentally hard wired to classify people into Us & Them. For instance,

  • Flashing the image of a “Them” for 50 milliseconds (20thof a second, barely at the level of detection), preferentially activates the amygdala- part of the brain associated with anxiety, fear & aggression.
  • Watch a film of a hand being poked with a needle. An involuntary reflex is activated wherein your hand clenches — unless the hand is of another race, in which case the clenching is drastically lesser.

It’s not just other races or countries that we discriminate against. We group people as Us vs Them in every aspect of life. Introverts vs Extroverts, College X vs College Y, Fans of sportsman X vs fans of sportsman Y. Once these are made, we tend to support the cause of Us-es as opposed to Thems. We tend to view people who comprise Us as wiser, moral, trustworthy etc. Our music is more elegant, our language is more poetic and so on.

Oxytocin (or the colloquial love hormone) makes you pro-social only towards Us-es. Diabolically, it makes you behave like a jerk towards people whom you classify as Thems. Implicit association tests allow you to uncover the depth of biases that are active in you.

How do we classify people- A simplified model?

Susan Fiske of Princeton University suggests that we perceive people based on two broad metrics.

  • Warmth: Benevolent vs Malevolent
  • Competence: How effectively a person can carry out his/her intentions

And the kinds of feelings that we have are as follows:

Practical Reason for Biases

One might wonder why such stereotypical behavior evolved in the first place. Stereotyping helped the early hominins to make snap decisions about other hominins before they could get to know them well. With the brain’s limited capacity and energy, the neural system resorts to biases- a sub-optimal but highly efficient way of functioning. The biological cost of being too open-minded is evolutionarily prohibitive. “Better safe than sorry!” is a frequent theme underlying the evolution of prejudices.

It also fosters a sense of identity which binds a group together. Personal identity expands to include the group identity. This readiness to form groups allowed ideas and goods to be exchanged quickly, thus promoting odds of survival.

Can we ever get over discrimination?

Stereotyping has undoubtedly caused a lot of pain. Unless you eliminate the amygdala (the fear center) in the brain, “curing away” discrimination seems impossible. Moreover, do we need to cure away Us/ Them-ing? Despite being a solitary person, some of my most happy moments in life have been from situations where I felt like an Us- feeling accepted, not alone, safe, feeling like part of some larger system.

Thankfully, the dichotomizing of Us vs Them is fungible in the sense that we have multiple levels of Us/ Them (dog/cat lovers, supporters of the same sports team or political party etc.). During the famous “Christmas Truce” of World War I soldiers of Britain & Germany spent the day drinking and partying together. Christmas allowed the soldiers to circumvent their innate national allegiances. On that day, they felt like a part of the same “Us-es” who were fighting from horrid trenches for their commanders who just wanted them to kill each other.

We have to accept that there will always be sides. Understanding the multifarious reasons behind our darker behaviors is one way to ensure that we think rationally and not “rationalize” autonomous instincts inside us.

“Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.”

Marie Curie

Originally published at http://meditationsofavoyager.wordpress.com on June 20, 2021.

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Varad Patankar

Chemical Engineer from UDCT Mumbai, presently pursuing an MBA from the Indian School of Business.