How little does it take to make someone racist?

Suppose I told you today that, from now on, you would be identified in your work place or school as being on the Blue Team. Then I listed a group of peers you didn’t know well as also being on your team. Another group would be the Red Team. A few weeks go by, during which you don’t work in your color group, nor do you hear any information about what the Red Team is doing. At the end of the month, I ask you how much you like the other members of the Blue Team. Do you think you’d like your team? Do you think you’d like them more than you liked the members of the Red Team? It sounds ridiculous, but more often than not, people do like their team more. I’m referring to an experimental method called the “minimal group paradigm.” The idea is that people are motivated to value groups they’re part of, so even arbitrary distinctions elicit an “us vs. them” mentality, or in psychology terms, feelings of an “ingroup” and an “outgroup”. This mentality can take the form of believing our ingroup is better than our outgroup, or feeling more empathy for members of our ingroup than our outgroup. This phenomenon has been documented in the lab as well as in the real world.

Recent research, though, suggests that the picture may be a bit more complicated than that. In children, it turns out that anxiety plays a major role in whether you engage this ingroup bias. Recently, for instance, Masten, Gillen-O’Neel and Brown (2010) have found that only children who are socially anxious and distressed will show empathy bias (feeling worse for victims of their own group) in a minimal group paradigm. Elementary school children were assigned to wear differently colored shirts every day at camp.  After a few weeks, kids were told (ever so briefly!) that they’d been rejected by a peer, and interviewed about how they felt and how they imagined others who had also been rejected felt (it was later revealed that this was all just an experiment).  Among kids who were identified with their group, only those who were distressed by the rejection and socially anxious early in the summer were biased in their sympathy for others. They felt worse for kids in their own group who were rejected than they did for kids in the other group. This was likely because feeling anxiety reduced children’s ability to take the perspective of others, making it hard to empathize with those different from them. The tendency to show more bias towards an outgroup when feeling stressed has been established in adults, as well.

So what does this tell us? In real world terms, this suggests that we may not always be fair in our perceptions of others when we’re stressed. When you’re having a bad day, you don’t tend to give the guy who cuts you off in traffic the benefit of the doubt—you assume he’s a jerk.  Stress makes us particularly prone to stereotypes and biases because we’re too busy dealing with our own emotions to evaluate the situation clearly.

The minimal group paradigm is fascinating precisely because it’s so simple. Even wearing a shirt shows dramatic effects on individuals’ biases towards the ‘other guy.’ In the outside world, though, these differences are very real. Particularly when stressed, we may assume that members of another race are more likely to be malicious than our own group, or we might figure that members of a different gender are more likely to be self-serving. It would seem that, in some situations, the clichéd phrase is true: It’s not you, it’s me.