The Prejudicial Instinct

Tom Stafford revisits the work of psychologist Henri Tajfel, who devised an experiment to see “what it took to turn the average fair-minded human into their prejudiced cousin.” He arbitrarily divided subjects into groups, maybe by “eye-colour, maybe what kind of paintings they like, or even by tossing a coin”:

Every participant knows which group he or she is in, but they also know that they weren’t in this group before they started the experiment, that their assignment was arbitrary or completely random, and that the groups aren’t going to exist in any meaningful way after the experiment. They also know that their choices won’t directly affect them (they are explicitly told that they won’t be given any choices to make about themselves). Even so, this situation is enough to evoke favouritism.

So, it seems we’ll take the most minimal of signs as a cue to treat people differently according to which group they are in. Tajfel’s work suggests that in-group bias is as fundamental to thinking as the act of categorisations itself. If we want to contribute to a fairer world we need to be perpetually on guard to avoid letting this instinct run away with itself.

And not engage in quixotic, legal attempts to coerce it away.