Prejudice gets a bad rap, and rightly so. Yet people praise patriotism, cherish their alma maters, revel in their ethnic heritage, and hold family near and dear. These insider behaviors are as natural to human beings as walking upright. Psychologist Paul Bloom casts prejudice in a new light, explaining that in-group versus out-group bias, though innate, only becomes harmful if not tempered by empathy, awareness, judgment and intellect. getAbstract applauds Bloom’s unbiased approach to prejudice.
- Prejudice is an innate human characteristic that contributes to navigation and survival in an otherwise chaotic world.
- People instinctively divide the world into categories: “us versus them” or “in-group versus out-group.” This isn’t always wrong or immoral.
- Stereotyping is unethical only when it produces a dehumanizing mind-set toward people of other ideologies, backgrounds or ethnicities.
- Combat the negative effects of prejudice by using stories to ignite people’s empathy.
- Draw on your reason to demonstrate compassion and to act in the interests of the greater good.
People usually equate prejudice with acts of ignorance and evil. Yet prejudice and bias are innate human traits. Humans categorize people and things into familiar contexts to enable survival and navigation of the greater world. Thus, stereotypes and generalizations can be useful. People also divide the world into “us versus them.” When you experience feelings of national pride, for instance, you display bias toward your compatriots. These are natural human tendencies that even infants exhibit. However, problems arise when these sentiments lead people astray. Psychologist Henri Tajfel concluded that the Holocaust was an “extreme exaggeration of normal psychological process.” His study of British adolescents showed that once he had – at random – labeled each teen either as a “Kandinsky lover” or as a “Klee lover,” members of each group exhibited profound in-group preferences, even if they had never heard of the famous artists prior to the study.
“When we think about prejudice and bias, we tend to think about stupid and evil people doing stupid and evil things.”
Though often helpful, “stereotypes can...go awry,” engendering a dehumanizing mind-set toward people of other ideologies, backgrounds or ethnicities. A study before the 2008 US presidential election asked participants how American they considered the candidates to be. Respondents identified John McCain, a Vietnam veteran, as “more American” than Barack Obama. But they also found Tony Blair, a former prime minister of the UK, to be more American than Obama. Skin color was the influencing factor. Similarly, in the US, murderers with prototypically dark African-American skin color and bone structure are more likely to receive the death penalty than lighter-skinned African-American murderers.
“Prejudice and bias illustrate a fundamental duality of human nature. We have gut feelings, instincts, emotions, and they affect our judgments and our actions for good and for evil, but we are also capable of rational deliberation and intelligent planning, and we can use these to, in some cases, accelerate and nourish our emotions, and, in other cases, staunch them.”
Combat the negative effects of prejudice by igniting empathy. Stories can transform “anonymous strangers into people who matter.” For example, television series such as The Cosby Show changed entrenched American attitudes toward African-Americans, and Will and Grace and Modern Family altered perceptions regarding homosexuals. The “power of reason” is another potent weapon against prejudice. Philosopher Adam Smith described how the human conscience uses reason to overcome selfishness in order to act morally. Reason encourages people to show compassion and to subdue self-interest in favor of the greater good. And that idea is the foundation of a constitution – principles that codify moral behavior. Recognize rather than deny unhealthy bias, and draw on your intellect to eradicate it from your judgments and behavior.
About the Speaker
Paul Bloom is a professor of psychology at Yale University.
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