Us and them, and our brains.

Political arguments, moral judgment and social conflicts are among the most complex social behaviors that humans engage in, yet we perform these things with a brain that is not so much different from that of a chimpanzee. There is definitely an interest in understanding what happens in the brain when people argue, fight, judge, stereotype or segregate, but scientific advancement on this controversial issue is rather slow1,2,3,4.

A recent paper published in Behavioral and Brain Sciences5 reviews data from psychology and sociology on prejudice and discrimination and asks a provocative question: Is getting us to like one another more the solution? (what scrooge am I to bring up this question three days before Christmas!).

Social Network Analysis

An example of social network analysis where relations between individuals are illustrated by blue lines.

Photo from DarwinPeacock released under the Creative Commons license.

I do not really like the word prejudice to describe the hatred, aggression or bullying that some individuals impose on some groups. Prejudice is defined as a preconceived preference or judgment on certain groups (think about race, sex, sexual orientation, etc…). The problem is that the definition assumes that the preference is preconceived and that judgment is being made without full knowledge of the other. Thus by designating hatred directed to a particular group as prejudice, one assumes that the perpetrator of the “prejudice” lacks some knowledge that would keep him from doing it. The first reason I do not like the term is that it does not encompass all forms of what we call prejudice – a bully harassing someone for his sexual orientation might very well be aware that he is causing pain, might know his victim and know everything there is to know about sexual orientation and yet decide to bully. The fact that he is making bad decisions does not imply that he is missing anything in terms of information or knowledge.

If this was just a semantic issue I would not mind, but the ideology behind the word affects our public policy. The intuitive answer that some sociologists provide to counter bullying is that we need to educate the kids more. The rationale is simple: they do not know, so we have to make them know. Although obviously well-intended, the idea that the solution to prejudice is to educate the kids should never be assumed to be true and requires a case-by-case examination. The article by Dixon et al. reviews interventions based on this model that they refer to as the “prejudice reduction model”.

I come from Canada, a country where we apply this model to almost everything. Private associations as well as public agencies actively engage in changing society, particularly kids; books and courses of very young kids are purposely adjusted to praise the love of those who are different. For decades in Canada, social engineering has been rather popular and, for instance in Quebec, there is an obligatory course in elementary schools about ethics and religion that has been specifically designed to entrench kids with multiculturalist ideology. A priori those interventions all look well-intended and it makes them very hard to criticize. After all, who would not want of a world where people can freely choose their religion and sexual orientation and be accepted without judgment? The hard question to ask is: to get to that world, is it sufficient to praise for the inclusion of everyone and foster contacts between members of different groups, or is it possible that by doing so we might create an effect that is opposite to our original goal?

The answer to a lot of these questions is: we do not know much. Dixon et al., however, provide a good overview of the research that has been done on the subject, particularly on prejudices within historically unequal societies. They should be credited more for raising an important question than for providing a definitive answer. What we can glance from the available research is that there is no single rule about whether or not inciting people to love one another will indeed have a positive effect. In some cases it does, in others it may amplify the feelings of inequality and sometimes make people accustomed to it by justifying the system of inequality.

Guy Madison and Fredrik Ullén make an important point in their follow-up comment: we will have to consider the social psychology of individuals, their moral preferences, how their cognition works and why evolution has made it this way. Social neuroscience and psychology should not only care about the cognitive processes by which one comes to the conclusion that being violent with someone else is bad. It should also try to find why, for instance, thousands of teenagers every year bully someone for their sexual orientation and think that they are justified in doing so. There is, in the decision to harass or hurt, a wicked logic that deserves the most serious scientific scrutiny.

Among the other important points that are covered in the paper is the process of dehumanization. In its most extreme form, dehumanization happens when someone justifies acts of aggression by considering the other as a non-human, or someone with no emotions. It happens, for instance, during military conflicts. Dehumanization is an important process as it may be an important determinant of the switch from disagreeing to attacking. But as Dixon et al. put it, there is a spectrum of dehumanization and it does not always lead to violence. Sometimes, it can sustain positive acts. For instance, in some relations of help, the helper can be condescending and maintain the relation by donating money while dehumanizing the person “in the need, in development, in need of education”.

Prejudice appears as a process by which some behavioral or physical trait of a person triggers a drive to punishment or judgement in an observer. The ability to punish and judge others for their actions is likely an important feature of normal social life. It might be beneficial to the advancement of research in this domain to consider the possibility that acts of aggression towards some groups might reflect a (mis)use of the very neural network that manages normal social interactions. The answer to prejudice and discrimination might lie in the neural network which makes us observe others and punish them when they do something we consider bad and reward them when they do something we consider good.


1. Bost PR, Prunier SG, Piper AJ. (2009) Relations of familiarity with reasoning strategies in conspiracy beliefs. Psychology Reports 107:593-602.

2. Grzesiak-Feldman M, Irzycka M. (2009) Right-wing authoritarianism and conspiracy thinking in a Polish sample. Psychological Reports 105:389-93.

3. Cikara M, Farnsworth RA, Harris LT, Fiske ST. (2010) On the wrong side of the trolley track: neural correlates of relative social valuation. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience 5:404-13.

4. Hawkins CB, Nosek BA. (2012) When ingroups aren’t “in”: perceived political belief similarity moderates religious ingroup favoritism. PLoS One 7:e50945.

5. Dixon J, Levine M, Reicher S, Durrheim K. (2012) Beyond prejudice: Are negative evaluations the problem and is getting us to like one another more the solution? Behavioral and Brain Sciences 20:1-15.

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