LONDON – Psychologists have proven that monkeys are the world’s first racists.
Yale graduate student Neha Mahajan, along with a team of psychologists, traveled to Cayo Santiago, an uninhabited island southeast of Puerto Rico also known as “Monkey Island,” in order to study the behavior of rhesus monkeys. Like humans, rhesus monkeys live in groups and form strong social bonds. The monkeys also tend to be wary of those they perceive as potentially threatening.
Their conclusion: monkeys don’t like outsiders. They make fun of them, throw banana peels at them and try to get them to leave their “neighborhood.”
To figure out whether monkeys distinguish between insiders (i.e. those who belong to their group) and outsiders (i.e. those who don’t belong), the researchers measured the amount of time the monkeys stared at the photographed face of an insider versus outsider monkey. Across several experiments, they found that the monkeys stared longer at the faces of outsiders. This would suggest that monkeys were more wary of outsider faces.
Mahajan and her team also devised a method for figuring out whether the monkeys harbor negative feelings towards outsiders. They created a monkey-friendly version of the Implicit Association Test (IAT). For humans, the IAT is a computer-based task that measures unconscious biases by determining how quickly we associate different words (e.g. “good” and “bad”) with specific groups (e.g. faces of either African-Americans or European-Americans). If a person is quicker to associate “bad” with African-American faces compared to European-American faces, this suggests that he or she harbors an implicit bias against African-Americans.
Overall, the results support an evolutionary basis for prejudice. The fact that prejudice often occurs automatically doesn’t mean we can’t find ways of overcoming its negative effects. For example, there is evidence that when people are made aware of their automatic prejudices, they can self-correct. And when we are encouraged to take the perspective of an outsider, it reduces our automatic prejudice towards that person’s group.
Given that most of the difficult conflicts we face in the world today originate from clashes between social groups, it makes sense to devote time to understanding how to reduce our biases. But our evolutionary past suggests that in order to be effective, we may need to adopt a new approach.
Often we focus more on political, historical, and cultural factors rather than the underlying patterns of thinking that fuel all conflicts. By taking into account the extent to which prejudice is deeply rooted in our brains, we have a better chance of coming up with long-term solutions that work with, rather than against, our natural tendencies.
Excerpts from article by Daisy Grewal