Most people think they’re less biased than average. But just as we can’t all be better than average, we can’t all be less prejudiced than average. Although the message—and the success so far—of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign suggests an America that is moving past traditional racial divisions and prejudices, it’s probably safe to assume that all of us harbor more biases than we think.
Science suggests that most of us don’t even know the half of it. A 20-year eruption of research from the field of “social neuroscience” reveals exactly how automatically and unconsciously prejudice operates. As members of a society with egalitarian ideals, most Americans have good intentions. But new research suggests our brains and our impulses all too often betray us. That’s the bad news.
But here’s the good news: More recent research shows that our prejudices are not inevitable; they are actually quite malleable, shaped by an ever-changing mix of cultural beliefs and social circumstances. While we may be hardwired to harbor prejudices against those who seem different or unfamiliar to us, it’s possible to override our worst impulses and reduce these prejudices. Doing so requires more than just good intentions; it requires broad social efforts to challenge stereotypes and get people to work together across group lines. But a vital first step is learning about the biological and psychological roots of prejudice.
Here’s the first thing to understand: Modern prejudice is not your grandparents’ prejudice.
Old-fashioned racism and sexism were known quantities because people would mostly say what they thought. Blacks were lazy; Jews were sly; women were either dumb or bitchy. Modern equivalents continue, of course—look at current portrayals of Mexican immigrants as criminals (when, in fact, crime rates in Latino neighborhoods are lower than those of other ethnic groups at comparable socioeconomic levels). Most estimates suggest such blatant and wrongheaded bigotry persists among only 10 percent of citizens in modern democracies. Blatant bias does spawn hate crimes, but these are fortunately rare (though not rare enough). At the very least, we can identify the barefaced bigots.
Our own prejudice—and our children’s and grandchildren’s prejudice, if we don’t address it—takes a more subtle, unexamined form. Neuroscience has shown that people can identify another person’s apparent race, gender, and age in a matter of milliseconds. In this blink of an eye, a complex network of stereotypes, emotional prejudices, and behavioral impulses activates. These knee-jerk reactions do not require conscious bigotry, though they are worsened by it.