Tag Archives: diversity

The Science of Stereotypes

When you look at the history of human conflicts, it sometimes seems as if most of them can be boiled down to battles of “us versus them”–however the relevant combatants are defining “us” and “them.”

Anyone who is, or has ever been, part of a group marginalized by a particular society knows the sting of the stereotype: In the U.S. it has been”scheming” Jews, “sissy” gays, “shiftless” blacks…In our trips to Europe, Spanish people have warned us against “thieving” Moroccans, a Hungarian expressed disdain for “dirty” Gypsies, and in a small town in Northern England, we were told to beware of people from Yorkshire.

Anyone with two brain cells recognizes how ridiculous it is to apply sweeping generalities–positive or negative– to any group of people. That said, it is clear that even nice people have implicit preferences for those with whom they identify. That undeniable human tendency raises two questions: why? and how do we overcome a deep-seated trait that–whatever its original utility– is increasingly counterproductive?

A recent article in The Conversation looked at the science of stereotyping.

As in all animals, human brains balance two primordial systems. One includes a brain region called the amygdala that can generate fear and distrust of things that pose a danger – think predators or or being lost somewhere unknown. The other, a group of connected structures called the mesolimbic system, can give rise to pleasure and feelings of reward in response to things that make it more likely we’ll flourish and survive – think not only food, but also social pleasure, like trust.

But how do these systems interact to influence how we form our concepts of community?

Implicit association tests can uncover the strength of unconscious associations. Scientists have shown that many people harbor an implicit preference for their in-group – those like themselves – even when they show no outward or obvious signs of bias. For example, in studies whites perceive blacks as more violent and more apt to do harm, solely because they are black, and this unconscious bias is evident even toward black boys as young as five years old.

Brain imaging studies have found increased signaling in the amygdala when people make millisecond judgments of “trustworthiness” of faces. That’s too short a time to reflect conscious processes and likely reveal implicit fears.

These studies, and many others like them, can help us understand distrust and fear of the “other.” They also explain the innate preference for people with whom we identify:

As opposed to fear, distrust and anxiety, circuits of neurons in brain regions called the mesolimbic system are critical mediators of our sense of “reward.” These neurons control the release of the transmitter dopamine, which is associated with an enhanced sense of pleasure. The addictive nature of some drugs, as well as pathological gaming and gambling, are correlated with increased dopamine in mesolimbic circuits.

The good news is that biology is not destiny.

Even if evolution has tilted the balance toward our brains rewarding “like” and distrusting “difference,” this need not be destiny. Activity in our brains is malleable, allowing higher-order circuits in the cortex to modify the more primitive fear and reward systems to produce different behavioral outcomes.

Research has confirmed that when diverse people work together–in business, or on a common problem–they are more innovative and productive than more homogeneous  groups. When people of different backgrounds socialize, they stretch their frames of reference and reduce their instinctive suspicions.

Of all the damage done by Trump voters, perhaps the very worst has been their willingness to reward political candidates–including legislators–who appeal to crude stereotypes and enthusiastically encourage fear of “the other.”

Humans can learn. To be human is to have a choice. We can tame our destructive instinctive responses. But in order to do that–in order to be more humane and less primordial–we need leaders who model our preferred behaviors and call on us to be the best version of ourselves.

Those are the people who deserve our votes in November.

Sing, Dammit..

Later this morning, I will give a brief talk at a brunch for the Indianapolis Women’s Chorus.

What’s that old saying about music having charm to soothe the savage beast? (Actually, the original–correct–version is “Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast,” but I sort of prefer the bastardized version, since I’ve been in a pretty savage and beastly mood lately.) At any rate, the Women’s Chorus makes beautiful music, and I’m looking forward to the performance portion of the program.

Here are the brief remarks I plan to share.


I am honored to be here today, not just because the Women’s Chorus makes beautiful music, but because your mission, and your celebration of diversity, has never been more important.

Like many of you, I have been depressed and frightened since last November’s election. That election rewarded a campaign based almost entirely on appeals to American resentments–on appeals to ignorance, racism, misogyny and homophobia–and it left me wondering what had happened to the country I thought I lived in.

In the wake of that election, though, I’ve been energized and amazed to see unprecedented levels of civic engagement, from the Women’s March to the marches in support of science and the environment, to the turnouts at Congressional Town Halls across the country, to new activist groups springing up every day. Here in Indiana, Women4Change was organized last November, after the election; today it has close to 14,000 members.

We are not alone. And we can learn a number of lessons from what has come to be called “the Resistance.”  Let me just share three of them:

  • Lesson number one: We the People are not helpless. When so many Americans rise up and demand better policies and better government—when we let our elected officials know that we won’t continue to allow them to enact policies that take from the poor and give to the rich, that we won’t continue to turn a blind eye to corruption and cronyism, that we will refuse to let racist, sexist and homophobic tactics divide us—we can prevail.
  • Lesson number two is particularly gratifying to old feminists like me: women can and will empower other women. Women can and will stand up for our right to self-determination, our right to equal pay for equal work, our right to control our own reproduction, and our right to live our lives on our own terms. We can and will encourage more feminists—female and male– to run for public office, and we can and will support them when they do.
  • Lesson number three is one that members of the Indy Women’s Chorus know well: the performing and visual arts are inherently and powerfully political. Not partisan, but political and progressive. More hearts and minds have been changed through story and song than through blog posts and editorials—and I say that as someone who has a blog and writes editorials. The arts—music, dance, theater, painting—are what separate humans from animals; communication through the arts touches and teaches us in profound and moving ways.

I applaud what you do, and I am so grateful to be a part of today’s event. Thank you for asking me!

The Roots of Distrust

In 2009, I wrote a book called Distrust, American Style. The impetus for that book was publication–and widespread discussion–of a study in which Robert Putnam found that neighborhoods with greater diversity had higher levels of social distrust, and concluded that diversity–living among people who looked or talked or prayed differently– caused discomfort and distrust.

I didn’t disagree with his basic facts–his finding that more diverse populations demonstrated higher levels of distrust–but I strongly disagreed with the conclusions he drew from those facts. Now, seven years later, researchers from Princeton and NYU have weighed in on my side of the debate. As they explained in a recent New York Times Op-Ed,

Our research reveals that even in the short term, diversity is not to blame. We independently analyzed the same data set Professor Putnam used, and we demonstrate that disadvantage, not diversity, is responsible for distrust.

At first glance, our results resemble those of previous studies: People in more diverse communities report lower levels of trust. Scholars and columnists alike have taken this to mean that diversity reduces trust, but we argue that this interpretation is flawed.

My own analysis was somewhat different, but consistent with the results of this new research. I offered two alternative interpretations of Putnam’s research; in the one most congruent with the conclusions of the Princeton/NYU scholars, I relied upon a body of  research that correlated economic and personal insecurity with higher levels of interpersonal distrust.

If you live in a neighborhood where crime is rampant and police presence infrequent, if you make minimum wage, have no job security and no access to health insurance, you are not likely to be a trusting individual. You are also more likely to live in a diverse neighborhood.

In Distrust, American Style I went further. I pointed to the fact that–thanks to the Internet and social media–Americans are more aware than ever of untrustworthy behaviors of our common social institutions. When people see unethical and unsavory behaviors by big businesses, major-league sports, and various elected officials–when even the Catholic Church is found to have covered up molestation of young people–it’s not surprising that citizens feel betrayed and grow cynical, or that generalized trust declines.

In the years since I published Distrust, that latter problem has been exacerbated by the “wild west” environment of social media, where all manner of allegations and accusations of wrongdoing–many invented out of whole cloth– feed what seems to be a national paranoia.

Blaming low levels of trust on the fact that our neighbor is a different color or religion is easy, and it may comfort those for whom diversity is experienced as threatening, but it is an unfortunate and unhelpful diversion from more in-depth analysis.

As any doctor will tell you, you can’t prescribe the right medicine if you haven’t accurately diagnosed the disease.

Trying to make America less diverse by deporting immigrants–the “Trumpian” solution–is not only fantasy. It is the wrong medicine. It not only won’t restore social trust, it will increase paranoia.

Strengthening the social safety net to ameliorate insecurity, on the other hand, will go a long way toward calming the anxiety that is really at the root of our social suspicion.

About that Identity Crisis

I blogged yesterday about our unfortunate experiences entering Stratford Upon Avon. (My unstated conclusion was that the town is confident that William (Shakespeare) will continue to pull in the tourists, and additional efforts are unnecessary.)

That said, we did encounter a couple of wonderful, helpful people. When we got off the train in Stratford, we were on the opposite side of the tracks from the station, requiring us to negotiate one of those bridges that spans the tracks. Up a flight of stairs, across, and then down to the platform. I had the big suitcase, and a young man insisted on carrying it for me up, across and then down the steps, despite my protests that I could handle it. Bob’s experience was similar–a man traveling with his toddler daughter took both cases across the bridge for him.

In my case, the helpful young man was an Arab. Bob’s helper was black.

I don’t want to use this happenstance to draw any large social conclusions; I simply note it. But we have both remarked upon the changing composition of the English crowds we’ve encountered on this trip. Americans like to think our country is more diverse than other western industrialized nations, but if our observations are representative, multiculturalism is hardly confined to the U.S. As we looked out the windows at each of the 15 stops between London and Stratford, we were struck by the number of women wearing hijabs (even a few burkas), and others who clearly were not from stereotypical English backgrounds.

Those observations made me think about our dinner companions on the just-ended cruise. We ate with a couple from Switzerland whose son lives in Florida and whose daughter lives in Germany. The wife’s sister lives in Paris. The couple themselves have a flat in Nice, an apartment in Florida and their “ancestral” home in Switzerland. They are multi-lingual (I always feel like an ugly American around people who are fluent in three or four languages…). During our trip, we met a number of people with such multiple “homes” and what one might call “shared identities.”

Is there a point to these random observations? Probably not–unless we chalk up all these experiences to “the world is changing” and “you can’t tell a book by its cover.” Stereotypes–racial, national, religious, what-have-you–have never been particularly reliable, but in the world we inhabit, they have gone from being marginally useful to downright misleading.

Sometimes, travel outside one’s safe, familiar world is a forcible reminder that identity is a social construct.


For the past couple of years, our family has gathered for our Thanksgiving meal on the Saturday following the “proper” Thursday; it allows those coming in from the coasts to get better airfares, and those with “other” families to split their time equitably among relatives. So–although there seems to be some sentiment for a return to the traditional day of celebration–yesterday was our big meal.

And big it was! 22 people around three tables. Two turkeys, and multiple dishes, many assigned to children and siblings in advance. (My sister always brings the sweet potatoes–our daughter brings veggies, my daughter-in-law’s usually stuck with appetizers.)

I know that Thanksgiving is an ordeal for many people, a time of enforced conviviality with seldom-seen relatives who pry or judge, disagree politically, are more or less religious or are otherwise less than pleasant. But the thing I’m most grateful for is a family that isn’t at all like that. Our family includes not just blood relatives, but long-time friends, and relatives of relatives. This year, we welcomed the parents of my nephew’s partner. (My sister and brother-in-law have decided that even if it doesn’t work out between Josh and Michael, they’re keeping Michael’s parents!) We had nephews from both coasts, cousins from Florida, a son from New York, all our children and all but one of our grandchildren (our oldest granddaughter lives in England–she was missed!)

I’m probably biased, but I think our Thanksgiving table(s) are a perfect reflection of America.

We have Jews, Protestants, Catholics,Buddhists and atheists. We have gays and straights. We have native-born Americans and immigrants.

What we don’t have any more, I realized yesterday, are Republicans. And that’s interesting, because fifteen years ago, most of the people at my Thanksgiving tables were Republican. My sister used to poll her neighborhood for her precinct committee person. My brother-in-law was showing some disquieting signs of imminent “Fox-afication.” My husband and I were still hanging in, believing–hoping–that the sharp-right tilt of the party we’d worked for so long was a temporary aberration. A couple of the kids had already deserted, and several of us were getting uneasy, but like so many others, we had deep, longstanding ties to the GOP. We were loyal.

On the other hand….

We would all describe ourselves as socially liberal and fiscally conservative. We are all–every single one of us, whatever our religious beliefs, national origins or sexual orientations–pro-science. Pro-empirical evidence. Pro-diversity. Pro-reality.

And so here we were, this year, a now group composed entirely of Democrats and Independents. A group of people who favor reproductive choice and same-sex marriage, and worry about global climate change.

There’s a lesson for the GOP here, and I hope the party learns it. The country needs two credible political parties, and if our family is typical (and I think it is), we’ve pretty much lost one.