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Erasing Social Boundaries
updated: Feb 10, 2014, 4:15 PM
It's widely acknowledged that a common threat unites people. Individuals who
were previously separated by social class, race or ethnicity come together,
forming new cooperative alliances to defeat a common enemy. But does it take an
external threat - an attack like Pearl Harbor or 9/11 - to make these social
divisions melt away?
A study by behavioral scientists at UC Santa Barbara demonstrates that peaceful
cooperation has the same effect as intergroup conflict in erasing social
boundaries connected to race. Their findings appear today in the journal PLOS
"Evolution has equipped the mind with a cognitive system that is specialized for
detecting alliances in the social world," said Leda Cosmides, professor of
psychology at UC Santa Barbara and co-director of the campus's Center for
Evolutionary Psychology. "This alliance detection system spontaneously picks up
cues about who's cooperating with whom, and uses them to implicitly assign
people to social categories." The paper's lead author, David Pietraszewski,
collaborated with Cosmides and John Tooby, a professor of anthropology at UCSB
and also co-director of the center. Pietraszewski was a graduate student at UCSB
when the research was done, and is now a postdoctoral scholar at Yale
Behavioral scientists have long known that people commonly categorize others by
race and ethnicity. Earlier work at the center had found that intergroup
conflict reduced social categorization by race. "So the first question we asked
is whether social antagonism is necessary to trigger the categorization of
people by alliance - do we cognitively link A and B into an alliance category
only because they are jointly in conflict with C and D?" Pietraszewski said. The
short answer: It isn't.
The researchers used an experimental setup called "Who Said What?" to see how
their subjects were spontaneously categorizing people. "When people are trying
to recall who said what in a conversation, the errors they make show us the
hidden ways they are categorizing the speakers," Pietraszewski said.
In these experiments, subjects observed a scenario in which eight people
conversed with one another - in this case volunteers from two organizations that
help people, Habitat for Humanity and Partners in Health. All the volunteers
were wearing identical gray shirts, so there were no visual features
distinguishing members of the two groups. In some conditions, each charity group
had two black and two white members of the same sex, so race did not correlate
with group membership. In others, each had two men and two women of the same
race, so gender did not predict group membership. Subjects watched as the eight
volunteers chatted pleasantly about how each group cooperates to help others.
This conversation contained clues about who was allied with whom - that is,
about which individuals volunteer for Habitat for Humanity versus Partners in
Health. After watching this scenario for a few minutes, the volunteers' faces
appeared on a screen and statements from their conversation came up at random.
Subjects were asked to indicate "who said what?" by clicking on the face of the
person who had made each statement.
"If you get it right, that doesn't tell us anything," Pietraszewski explained.
"But people make a lot of errors, and they are more likely to confuse
individuals they have assigned to the same mental category. Their mistakes will
not be random. For example, subjects who implicitly categorized the volunteers
by their gender will be more likely to misattribute a statement made by a woman
to another woman than to a man, and vice versa. If these subjects also
categorized the volunteers by their alliances, they will be more likely to
misattribute a statement made by one member of Habitat for Humanity to another
Habitat member than to a member of Partners in Health." By tracking these error
patterns, the researchers were able to measure how strongly subjects categorized
the volunteers by their coalitional alliances, race and sex.
"We found that subjects spontaneously detected who was allied with whom,
categorizing the volunteers by their charity group membership," Pietraszewski
said. "There was no need for intergroup conflict. Peaceful cooperation triggered
alliance detection, whether the two coalitions were mixed-race or mixed-sex."
The second question the researchers asked was whether racial categorization
occurs because our minds treat race as if it were a clue to people's alliances.
"Do categories such as 'black' and 'white' arise in our minds because we cannot
help but see differences in skin color? Or is it because the alliance system
has detected that these differences in skin color are correlated with patterns
of cooperation and conflict in our society?" Tooby asked. "If racial categories
are creatures of the alliance system - if they are used to predict who is allied
with whom when there is no other information available - then it should be easy
to decrease racial categorization. Race should fade in relevance when it is
clear that other social dimensions, and not race, are currently organizing
To test this prediction, the researchers compared racial categorization when
coalitions were absent versus present. "In some conditions, speakers belonged to
two cooperative coalitions - the charity groups - and they were chatting about
their work. In other conditions, the same speakers made similar remarks, but
they were not members of two different coalitions. We measured racial
categorization in both sets of conditions. This let us see whether evidence of
peaceful cooperation across racial boundaries reduced categorization by race,"
It did. "When race did not predict who was allied with whom, but participation
in these cooperative charity groups did, there was a striking decrease in the
extent to which our subjects categorized people by their race," Pietraszewski
continued. "When all the volunteers in the scenario were men, racial
categorization was cut almost in half. When all the volunteers were women,
racial categorization disappeared. The alliance system responded quickly to new
information. Our subjects were exposed to a world in which race did not predict
coalitional alliances for only a few minutes, but this was enough to reduce -
and sometimes eliminate - the nonconscious tendency to categorize by race."
To rule out alternative explanations for the decrease in racial categorization,
the researchers also measured categorization by gender when coalitions were
present versus absent. "Gender was a good comparison category," Cosmides said.
"Like differences in skin color, differences in sex are visible on the face, and
both are categorized strongly under many conditions."
But race and sex are different in an important respect. Coalitional alliances
change all the time; if the mind treats race as a clue for predicting people's
alliances, then showing black and white people cooperating with one another
should reduce the use of this clue - it should reduce racial categorization. But
gender is important in all human societies, and in all primate species; it
organizes social behavior in many different situations. Evolution should have
equipped our minds with a cognitive system that spontaneously categorizes people
by their gender, because it was useful for predicting and interpreting behavior
during our evolutionary history. If this is correct, then categorization by sex
should remain high, even when people see men and women cooperating with one
another. The alliance cues that reduce racial categorization should have no
effect on gender categorization."
As predicted, the researchers found that subjects strongly categorized the
volunteers by their gender no matter what - whether charity groups were present
or absent, whether the individuals were dressed identically or wore different
colored shirts. "The alliance detection system regulated categorization by
coalition and race, but not sex," Pietraszewski said.
"This study tests the model that the mind cares about physical features only to
the extent that they suggest social relationships," explained Pietraszewski. "It
shows that the reason the mind attends to race at all is to keep track of
people's affiliations. When race proves not to be a factor, the alliance
detection system attends to it only minimally, if at all."
"The method we used is entirely unobtrusive," said Tooby. "People don't know
what you're measuring, and they couldn't control it even if they did. It shows
the principles by which you're categorizing people implicitly. In and of itself,
implicitly assigning people to racial categories is not racism. But if you
combine the tendency to categorize by race with a negative evaluation, that is
According to Tooby, when race does not predict who's on what side of an issue or
who's supporting whom, the mind discards it as an element for identifying
alliances. "Traditionally, the general impression people had was that when you
learn to be racist, it gets deeply inscribed and sneaks out in subtle ways and
it's slow to change," he explained. "One of the striking implications of this
research is that the tendency to categorize by race is easy to eliminate.
"The common-sense interpretation of why you see racial categories in the world
is because different kinds of people exist, and they look different from each
other. Therefore, just like you pick up differences between pears and peaches,
you pick up different races in the world," continued Tooby. "But at the genetic
level the differences are really hard to see. It's just not the case that people
of one race have a large series of genes that people from another race lack; you
just don't see that."
The question then becomes why racial differences are so visually salient to
people. "We see race in the world because patterns of alliance and cooperation
have trained us to sort people into categories that way," he said. "And this
training requires that our visual systems pick up tiny differences and amplify
them until what we see matches the alliance structure of our social world.
Young children are often surprised when adults describe players on their
favorite team as being of a different race. They don't see it."
"This research suggests that our minds retrieve race because it predicts
alliances in our social world," said Cosmides. "When other cues predict
cooperative alliances better, the mind reduces its reliance on racial
categories. That's why we refer to the content of your cooperation, not the
color of your skin."
For years, she added, social scientists have tried unsuccessfully to identify
social situations that decrease the extent to which people categorize others by
race. "One of the reasons people had assumed it was so difficult is because it's
supported by these perceptual differences," she said. "But we also show that
when you have purely perceptual categories - like wearing red shirts versus
yellow shirts - and when shirt color doesn't mean anything about coalitions or
social differences, people barely pick it up, or they don't pick it up at all.
You can't just say people categorize others by skin color because their visual
system can't help it."
If categorizing individuals by race is a reversible product of a cognitive
system specialized for detecting alliance categories, changing behavior might
have more powerful effects than changing minds, the researchers said. "Many
people assume you need to change how people think about racial issues to
eliminate racism," Cosmides explained. "This research suggests that if
cooperation across racial lines continues to increase in our society, our
tendency to think about people in racial terms will fall away. Cooperation
should change how people think."
- See more at: http://www.news.ucsb.edu/node/013948/content-our-cooperation-not-
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