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The Neuroscience of Prejudice

Hard to swallow pill:

Prejudice is rooted in human nature. Our minds naturally divide and categorize, favoring one group over another, clinging to our individual perspectives as if they were life rafts in a sea of uncertainty.

This unfortunate human trait isn’t just limited to sports and politics. Oh no, we take it to the next level by assigning our biases to entire cultural, religious, and ethnic groups. And research shows that those in power often use their influence to create disparity, crafting laws and conditions that perpetuate inequality.

Research has shown that the “us and them” mentality can even exist in situations where there is no real justification for the division at all.  If someone randomly handed you an orange popsicle, people given grape may think you’re a little suspicious.

Yes, it really is that dumb.

Man putting on a backpack in an urban setting, illustrating the neuroscience of prejudice.

Henri Tajfel’s research shows that if you randomly sort people into groups, they’ll cling to their identity and look down upon people who are not in their group. 

It seems that the root of prejudice lies our evolutionary biology, where defensive and aggressive behavior was necessary for animal groups to survive and thrive. The legacy of this legacy continues today, leading to mindless categorization, stereotyping, and preferential or prejudicial behavior.

This ‘us versus them’ malware is a gateway drug to racism. Jane Elliott, an elementary school teacher, showed this in a little experiment I like to call ‘Divide and Watch the World Burn’.

She told her students that blue-eyed kids were superior to the brown-eyed ones, and acracadabra. In just a few hours, the blue-eyed kiddos were bullying the brown-eyed ones. The next day, she reversed the dynamic and the tables turned. The moral of the story is that prejudice is a profoundly stupid impulse.

Brain scan studies have revealed that the amygdala, a key part of the brain responsible for our emotions related to fear, lights up when we first see someone from a different ethnic group. So clearly we need to be proactive and cultivate our ability to not be dumb in this way.


We can and should teach kids to accept people regardless of their race, gender, or financial background. One way to do that is the “jigsaw classroom”, where diverse groups are forced to work together. Like magic, cooperation increases and prejudice drops.

It takes vigilance to override our bias-loving biology. Undeniably, history has taught us how difficult it is stay open-minded. But what’s history for if not to learn from it?

I completely understand it’s no fun to hear that humans are biased ass-hats. But I truly believe that humility is the best place to start. 

We are not slaves to this biological default setting. We can adjust the dials.

Evolution is a force in motion that we can shape — and if we do the hard work, I believe our species can evolve away from instinctual prejudice.

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