On racism and the empathy gap (while sneakily building toward the idea that teaching kids to root for your favorite sports team might be kinda evil).

There is an unfortunately compelling evolutionary model to explain why humans are so predisposed to racism.  The rotten treatment of presumed outsiders may well be a corollary of our genetic inducements toward altruism.  Which is grimly ironic, the idea that the same evolutionary narrative could explain both the best & worst sides of human nature.

In brief: self-sacrificing altruism will be favored by natural selection if such behavior improves the outlook of a group of genetically-similar individuals.

Photo by Justin Lindsay (Flickr).
Vampire bat.  Portrait by Justin Lindsay (Flickr).

But there’s a problem.  Taking advantage of the goodwill of others without contributing anything in return is even more effective.  All the benefits of altruism (having others be nice to you) with none of the costs (having to be nice to others)!  Like choosing to live in a country with good roads, a functional education system, reasonable protections for property rights, etc., but then declining to pay taxes.  Or being willing, as a vampire bat, to scarf some donated blood from others on your bad days, but not returning the favor if a neighbor comes up dry on a night you scored.  Or partaking of scavenged feasts as a protohuman, but never volunteering to charge forward with arms flung wide and attempt to scare off the lions (which is apparently less suicidal than it sounds; there’s a modern re-enactment of this on BBC Earth’s Human Planet).

Which means that, for genes that nudge their bearers toward altruism to flourish, there needed to be a mechanism for defectors to be detected and excluded.

One component of this is good — it’s been proposed that our innate sense of justice resulted from the need to ensure cooperation in societies.  Even very young humans are likely to intercede when they observe unfair behavior.

But, ah!  That tricky word, “observe.”  We have to trust that our compatriots will act ethically even when we can’t see them.  And, sadly, numerous studies have revealed that people will, on average, behave more ethically when exposed to eye imagery.  As with any social psychology finding, there’s large interpersonal variation… these studies almost all have wide error bars.  This result is clearly not that you are worse when you think no one is watching, but that the average individual is inclined to be.

The All-Seeing Eyes by Caneles on Flickr.  CC 2.0 license.
The All-Seeing Eyes. By Caneles (Flickr).

The protohumans to whom we owe our genetic heritage didn’t think to plaster eye imagery all over their environs (not in a literal sense, anyway — it’s been postulated that belief in an all-seeing deity has a similar effect on people’s behavior, and that such beliefs were integral to the growth of large communities).  And, unlike us oh-so-clever modern humans, our ancestors also failed to install privacy-obliterating surveillance cameras throughout their campgrounds and hunting ranges.  There were numerous opportunities to lie or cheat or steal or otherwise defect from cooperative behavior without the risk of being caught.

The genes that nudge people toward altruistic behavior had to be selected for in an environment with large quantities of hidden information.  And altruism is only a good evolutionary strategy if you can be pretty sure that, when you help someone, it’s most likely another altruist you’re helping.

This may be why our brains are so good at dividing the world into us and them.  By reserving altruism for a small group of allies, our ancestors may have increased the odds that the recipients of their aid were genetically similar to themselves.  And then, because our mental architecture is so flexible, we can adapt this wiring to use a wide variety of cues to distinguish between self and other.  Species, skin color, political affiliation, clothing style, whether someone is presumed to over- or under-estimate the number of dots on a screen ...

Once the world is divided into us and them, it seems that we may be less altruistic to those outside our own group because we don’t even perceive them as needing help.  There’s been a lot of research done on the “empathy gap,” the way we discount the suffering of those we presume to be unlike ourselves.  I really like the paragraph in Paul Gazda’s article “I Was an Animal Experimenter” that reads,

See the NYT article here.

“One day, while programming an experiment, I accidentally touched the electrodes and got a jolting shock that numbed my entire arm.  I was amazed that, according to my professor, the shock level was the correct one to use for pigeons.  I told myself that pigeons must not feel pain as much as I did.”

Similarly, people often seem able to convince themselves that other humans with differing levels of melanin in their epidermis also feel less pain: observing someone who resembles us get hurt triggers an empathetic response, as though we were feeling the pain ourselves.  This empathetic mirroring is diminished when the individual in pain is one of them, however.

So far, this essay has just been a bleak recounting of information about humans & our failings.  And I could go on.  Really, our genetic heritage is ill suited to the way I think we ought to live.  But I’m not sure what the benefit of listing all our foibles would be if there were no findings relevant to how we might make the world a better place … like, yeah, sometimes I learn things just because I love feeling depressed, but it’s nice to stumble across a glimmer of hope every now and then.

Let’s look for some hope now, shall we?

I’ve been thinking about this ever since reading Jeneen Interlandi’s article “The Brain’s Empathy Gap.”  There is a section in her article where she discusses research conducted with Israeli and Arabic subjects who underwent magnetic resonance imaging while reading about the Middle East. Capture

[The researcher] had noticed that a common sticking point in regional dialogues was that each side found the other ignorant or irrational or both.  [He] wanted to see if those perceptions could be traced to a specific part of the theory-of-mind network.

For the most part, the results were as expected.  Israeli subjects were more likely to harbor anti-Arab biases and to rate Arab perspectives as unreasonable, and vice versa.  And in both groups, a small region of the brain, the medial precuneus, which may be associated with the theory-of-mind network, responded more strongly when the subject was written by members of the other group.  But for three subjects, the psychological and neurological tests contradicted each other.  The psychological and neurological tests contradicted each other.  The psychological tests indicated that they held the same types of anti-Arab biases as the other Israeli subjects, but their brain scans, and their reasonableness ratings, indicated that they were able to identify with the Arab perspective nonetheless.  All three of these outliers, it turned out, were Israeli peace activists.

Clearly there are people who treat presumed outsiders more kindly than the prevailing norm.  Not everyone, it seems, discounts the suffering of others equally.  And, lo and behold, there are numerous findings that indicate psychological correlates of that discounting.  From the abstract of Masten et al.’s “Children’s intergroup empathic processing,”

“… those with a stronger ingroup identity displayed more empathy bias favoring their ingroup.”

To eliminate that reflexive, neurological discounting of the suffering of others, it may be necessary to identify less strongly with our own exclusionary groups.  To not think of ourselves as members of a species (which isn’t a hard and fast distinction anyway), or an ethnicity, or nationality, or members of a particular fraternity, or fans of a particular sports team…

The 2009 US Air Force Thunderbirds fly over Superbowl XLIII in Tampa, Fla., Feb. 2.  (RELEASED)
Superbowl XLIII.

Not all of these have implications for social justice — I’ve seen no research, for instance, suggesting that fans of the White Sox are systematically oppressed — the issue is that the human mind is malleable and performs best at those tasks which it’s been trained on.  I suppose it would be reasonable to speculate whether sports fandom could provide a replacement outlet for exclusionary reflexes — the idea that someone could drain him- or herself of racist attitudes by channeling that into dislike of a favorite team’s competitors — but, sadly, that seems not to be what happens.  I think the Eric Simons article “What science can tell us about why we love sports” has some perspicacious analysis:

In a more collective way, we also know from psychology that people divided into groups behave differently toward, and even unconsciously think differently about, in-group and out-group; sports provide an easy and arbitrary group division.  It does not follow, though, that sport is sublimated war — even though one of the most popular narratives about fans is that they’re merely channeling that same my-people aggression, in a (slightly) more constructive manner.  Humans are competitive and oriented toward thinking about the world in groups, but there’s no evidence that sports are a way for us to slake our warlike natures.

Personally, I think there is a stronger conclusion that can be drawn (although, let’s face it, my conclusion won’t include a phrase as beautiful as “slake our warlike natures”).  I’d wager that exclusionary pride in one context trains the mind to be more exclusionary in other contexts as well.

I know there are people who really benefit from the thought that they are part of something larger than themselves… but if our goal is to create a less racist society, it might be counterproductive to expend so much energy trying to instill school pride in children, for instance.  My high school had numerous pride rallies throughout the year, and every university seems to raise a fair bit of money through the sale of pride sweatshirts and the like… and wouldn’t it be ironic if we were training students’ minds to be worse as adults?


p.s.  Quite possibly the above findings do not apply to you.  Maybe you read this and thought, “Hey, wait a second, I’m a huge sports fan, I’ve got loyalty to my team, and *I* am not a racist jerk!”

Image by Neil Owen.
Image by Neil Owen.

And, look, I agree.  You’re not a jerk, dear reader!  (Unless you are, in which case you’re both a jerk *and* a liar, but let’s not consider that possibility)

The thing about all these social psychology results is, there are huge interpersonal variations… often the variation from person to person is larger than the observed effects.  If you want to see for yourself, really, go ahead, pull up almost any of the papers I cited above and take a gander at the error bars… they’re huge!

I’ve seen several articles cite Avenanti et al.’s study showing that white subjects feel less empathy when black people’s hands are poked with needles, for instance.  Earlier in this post I also included a link to their paper implying that this is what they saw.  But what they really observed is a small shift in the average response amongst thirty-two young people in Italy.  Their actual data isn’t available in the supplemental material for the paper but judging from their bar graphs it seems pretty likely that a few of their thirty participants empathized just as much no matter the melanin content of the hand being poked.

Quite probably they would have had one more non-racist data point if they’d included you.

But, then again… if they included too many people like you, then their paper couldn’t have been published.  Because nobody wants to read a paper saying “humans feel empathy when they see another human being poked with a needle.”  Or, no, that’s not true.  I’d be pretty happy to see some results like that.  But most journals wouldn’t publish it.  That result isn’t interesting.  And so studies like all the ones I linked to above are enriched for jerkish participants, because otherwise the papers wouldn’t exist for me to link to.  Kind of a conundrum, inn’t it?

So, carry on… as long as you’re being nice, go ahead and root for your favorite sports team.  Celebrate your Native American or Irish or Taiwanese or mixed or unknown heritage.  Buy yourself one of those decalcomaniaed license-plate holders from your alma mater.  The results from all those papers might be totally bunk.

It’s just that, if they aren’t, it’s quite possible that, for the statistically-averaged hordes, that type of behavior makes our world worse.  If all these findings are meaningful, then the cheering and the school pride and all the rest of it might make subconscious racism more prevalent.