United colours of humanity

Racial discrimination is a product of convictions and can be easily eradicated

Published: Thursday 31 January 2002

everything is not black and white. It's all shades of grey. This has been proved by a recent genetic research according to which, except for the skin colour, humanity is remarkably similar. Though people from different parts of the globe differ genetically, the dissimilarities are insignificant when compared with variations between people from the same place. Moreover, a handful of genes are guilty of perpetuating the 'black and white' bigotry ( www. economist.com , December 26, 2001).

These pioneering statements have been proved by Robert Kurzban, John Tooby and Leda Cosmides, three evolutionary psychologists who work at the University of California, Santa Barbara, usa. According to them, racism is actually an unfortunate by-product of the human mind's tendency to assign people to 'coalition groups'. Generally human beings use whatever cues are available, be they clothing, accent or skin colour, to slot individuals into such groups. The three researchers opine that such stereotypes can be easily dissolved and replaced with others. In other words, the world can be free from racial discrimination.

Kurzban, Tooby and Cosmides predict that when race is irrelevant to the ways 'groups' are formed, prejudices vanish, that too rapidly. To test this idea they used a psychological technique called the 'memory confusion protocol'. This involves showing subjects a series of pictures of people, together with sentences of a conversation that those people are supposed to be having. The sentences are shown in a random order, and the subjects are asked to associate these with the people. The information the protocol provides stems from the wrong attributions of words to the people in the pictures. Subjects tend to confuse who said what within 'groups' that they have constructed mentally from the information available. As the only data available to construct those 'groups' are the words and pictures, researchers can work out which criteria was, perhaps, unconsciously used to group the people.

The three researchers used two variations of the protocol. In both, sentences of a two-sided conversation were assigned photographs of young men, with each side receiving photographs of two black and two white men each. These were then given to the subjects, with the content of the conversation being the only clue for assigning the young men into groups. In the second variation, the young men were also wearing different coloured shirts (grey and yellow). The researchers made four specific predictions: firstly race would not be 'encoded' into a subject's reactions equally in all social contexts. Secondly, shared appearance is not necessary for grouping people. Thirdly, arbitrary cues other than race can assume the properties that race tends to exhibit in predicting membership of a group, and fourthly, when that happens, the strength of racial stereotyping will drop. All of these predictions were shown to be correct.

In the first experiment, when no visual clues were available, a lot of misattribution was correlated with skin colour. In the second experiment, the results were remarkably different. Given the extra clue of the shirt colours, the prevalence of misattribution was connected with apparent clues and race dwindled into insignificance.

The subjects had been given no prompting about the purpose of the experiment. They did not know that they were supposed to be looking for coalitions. But, subliminally, they noticed them. This suggests that their brains were more attuned to clustering by signals that point immediately to group membership, than by prejudices about which individuals should be forming groups. In other words, racial characteristics operate merely as badges of convenience, rather than pressing deep, biologically determined buttons of discrimination.

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