Paul Bloom, professor of Psychology at Yale University has been studying the moral life of babies for many years and has recently discovered that, perhaps, there is evidence children as young as six-months old have biases against certain people.
Who are they biased against? They’re biased against people who aren’t like them.
The experiment went like this: Bloom and his associates would offer a child either cereal or crackers and note their decision. Later, the researchers would set the child in front of a couple puppets and the child would watch as the puppets chose whether to eat cereal or crackers, too. Later, the child was offered the chance to hold one of the puppets. Around 87% of the time, children would choose the puppet that picked the same food they’d earlier chosen. In other words, children were most comfortable with the puppet that was most like them, that had their tastes and perhaps their way of seeing the world.
But this wasn’t the part of the study that was the most disturbing. As the experiment went on, the children were given the opportunity to cause pain to the puppets who had not chosen the treat they had chosen, and an uncomfortable percentage of children chose to do so. Not only did they want puppets who shared their interest to be around them, they wanted puppets who didn’t share their interests to suffer.
As children grow older and gain more life experience, these statistics thankfully change. Children learn caring, empathy and generosity later in life. What allows them to make this moral progression? Life experience. When a person has their pre-programmed defense mechanisms rewired by interacting with people who aren’t like them, they begin to see the world differently and they no longer want “others” to suffer.
Nevertheless, when we’re talking about ethnic differences, political differences, class differences or theological differences, we can easily see the same temptations playing out in adults.
Why are we so threatened by people who are different than us? Perhaps because we can predict the behaviors of those who are like us and the “others” are less predictable, making us feel less safe. And when somebody makes us feel unsafe, we feel more safe when they are made week through, perhaps, suffering.
These biases have both local and global implications. And those implications are sad and dangerous. It is very easy to get a large mass of people to believe an entire “other” group of people are evil, as long as the majority have never had personal experience with them.
So how do leaders guide others in evolving from primitive ways of seeing “others” to more accurate perceptions that most people share the same fears and hopes? The best way to lead people through this evolution is to guide them through a diversity of experiences and stimulation. The more diverse, the better.
But this is a paradigm shift in leadership. Where before, we might try to convince people to remain objective about various positions, it’s much more effective to introduce people to a diversity of “others” who share commonalities. In other words, when somebody finds out a Democrat loves the same flavor ice cream, or an Arab is afraid of the same kinds of spiders, the effect may be much greater than that of a long, drawn-out debate.
It’s more effective to introduce others to the aspects of their “enemies” lives that are like theirs. And until these aspects are seen, many people will continue to demonize the “other.”
• Want to curb racism? Take your team to meet with a diversity of ethnicities.
• Want to fight classism? Take your team to meet with a diversity of class representatives.
• Want to fight political partisanship? Allow your team to interact in a real-life situation with people of various political persuasions.
• Want to end theological fights? Don’t talk theology so much as befriend people who have various opinions.
Even bringing up these ideas will cause a sense of tension for some. We want to know who the good guy is and who the bad guy is.
There are certainly people in the world who do bad things. I believe there are even cultures who are worse for the world than others. But what this research reveals is that what we often think of as “bad” or “wrong” is really just different. What would happen if you found out the people you think are evil are in fact a lot more like you than you thought? And what would happen if they found out you were a lot more like them, too? The more common ground we can find with others, the easier it will be to rewire ourselves away from our propensity to demonize and hate.
As leaders and people of influence, it’s important we lead people past and through their internal wiring of fear into a more truthful perspective that all people are made in God’s image. Are there bad people? Sure. But they are the rare exception.
To read an article explaining part of Paul Bloom’s research at Yale, click here.