Editor’s Note: Anton Gollwitzer is a doctoral student in psychology at Yale University. John Bargh is a professor of psychology at Yale and the author of “Before You Know It: The Unconscious Reasons We Do What We Do” (2017; Touchstone). The views expressed in this commentary are their own.
People are prejudiced – sometimes unashamedly so. We tend to have a host of reasons ready to justify our biases – the mentally ill are dangerous, immigrants steal jobs, the LGBTQ community corrupts family values, Muslims are terrorists and rural whites are uneducated.
But these prejudices are largely unfounded and the justifications don’t hold water, so what is driving them in the first place? In the December Nature: Human Behavior, we – with colleagues Julia Marshall and Yimeng Wang – report a basic root of social prejudice: People’s dislike of broken patterns.
Our starting premise was that society feels prejudice toward people who deviate from the norm, those who break physical or social patterns. In their skin color or dress, they break the pattern of what looks “normal.” In their religious or cultural practices, they deviate from long-established social norms, which are consensually agreed-upon patterns of social behavior.
Given this insight, we reasoned that social prejudice may originate from our general dislike of deviancy – breaks in regularities and what we are accustomed to. If true, then how we think and feel about people who look different, or behave differently than the norm, should be analogous to how we think and feel about objects that break the overall regularity of our visual experience – the pencil that is slightly out of line in a row of pencils, the patch of paint on the bedroom wall that’s just a shade darker than the rest of the room.
Our first set of studies established that a dislike of such non-social broken patterns is highly prevalent, early-emerging in life and exists across different cultures. Large samples of adults in China and the United States, for example, disliked broken patterns made up of geometric shapes – for instance, a row of triangles with one triangle out of line.
In these studies, we also found that the greater a person’s discomfort toward broken patterns in everyday scenes and geometric shapes, the greater their dislike of social norm-breakers (such as someone who cross-dresses), people with unusual physical characteristics (such as Dwarfism) and racial minority group members (black individuals).
However, and we should caution, this accounted for only 10% of participants’ prejudicial judgments. Though not insignificant, this leaves a lot of unexplained variance. In other words, a dislike of broken patterns does not by itself mean you are a racist. Also, being a neat or tidy person does not mean you are more prejudiced.
And it is important to note that our findings at this stage are correlational, not causal. We cannot conclude just yet that disliking broken patterns is a causal “root” of prejudice. What we can say, though, is that some of the discomfort that most of us experience in response to social deviancy, those negative gut feelings, is merely from seeing a social pattern being broken, nothing more.
We tend to assume that the thoughts and feelings we hold about our families, friends, partners, and strangers are the product of reasoning and experience, and largely removed from how we think about the physical world. However, our findings show that our social attitudes, our likes and dislikes for various types of people and various forms of behavior, are related more than we might think to our preferences in the physical world.
There have been several other recent demonstrations of how our feelings are influenced and affected by our physical experiences. For instance, recent neuroscience research shows that our representations of physical and social warmth are actually connected in our brains – from birth we associate physical warmth (being held close) with social warmth (trust and caring), and this effect persists throughout our lives.
Physical and social pain also overlap. Social pain experienced from rejection by another person or group activates the same underlying brain region as does the experience of physical pain – so much so that studies have found that taking over-the-counter pain relievers for two weeks actually helps the person get over the break-up faster.
Unfortunately, unlike taking Tylenol to reduce social pain, there is no magic pill to reduce social prejudice. (There may be medical risks to taking painkillers to get over social pain.) However, by illustrating that people’s social prejudices are not necessarily rational, they may be able to eschew the false beliefs they adopt to justify their prejudices (e.g., the mentally ill are dangerous, Muslims are terrorists).
While abandoning false justifications for prejudice is a good start, interventions to reduce prejudice are the ultimate goal. People potentially can reduce their prejudice by training themselves to be more tolerant of broken patterns in the physical world. If such interventions are effective at a young age, we will have a better chance of reducing social prejudices in the long term.