Why Do People Care About Race?

As I have discussed before, claims about a species’ evolutionary history – while they don’t directly test functional explanations – can be used to inform hypotheses about adaptive function. A good example of this concerns the topic of race, which happens to have been on many people’s minds lately. Along with sex and age, race tends to be encoded by our minds relatively automatically: these are the three primary factors people tend to notice and remember about others immediately. What makes the automatic encoding of race curious is that, prior to the advent of technologies for rapid transportation, our ancestors were unlikely to have consistently traveled far enough in the world to encounter people of other races. If that was the case, then our minds could not possess any adaptations that were selected to attend to it specifically. That doesn’t mean that we don’t attend to race (we clearly do), but rather that the attention that we pay to it is likely the byproduct of cognitive mechanisms designed to do other things. If, through some functional analysis, we were to uncover what those other things were, this could have some important implications for removing, or at least minimizing, all sorts of nasty racial prejudices.

…in turn eliminating the need to murder others for that skin-suit…

This, of course, raises the question what the cognitive mechanisms that end up attending to race have been selected to do; what their function is. One plausible candidate explanation put forth by Kurzban, Tooby, & Cosmides, (2001) is that the mechanisms that are currently attending to race might actually have been designed to attend instead to social coalitions. Though our ancestors might not have traveled far enough to encounter people of different races, they certainly did travel far enough to encounter members of other groups. Our ancestors also had to successfully manage within-group coalitions; questions concerning who happens to be who’s friends and enemies. Knowing the group membership of an individual is a rather important piece of information: it can inform you as to their probability of providing you with benefits or, say, a spear to the chest, among other things. Accordingly, traits that allowed individuals to determine other’s probable group membership, even incidentally, should be attended to, and it just so happens that race gets caught up in that mix in the modern day. That is likely due to shared appearance reflecting probable group memberships; just ask any clique of high school children who dress, talk, and act quite similarly to their close friends.

Unlike sex, however, people’s relevant coalitional membership is substantially more dynamic over time. This means that shared physical appearance will not always be a valid cue for determining who is likely to be siding with who. In such instances, then, we should predict that race-based cues should be disregarded in favor of more predictive ones. In simple terms, then, the hypothesis on the table is that (a) race tends to be used by our minds as a proxy for group membership, so (b) when more valid cues for group membership are present, people should pay much less attention to race.

So how does one go about testing such an idea? Kurzban, Tooby, & Cosmides, (2001) did so by using a memory confusion protocol. In such a design, participants are presented with a number of photos of people, as well as a sentence that the pictured individuals are said to have spoken to each other during a conversation about a sporting dispute they had last year. Following that, participants are given a surprise recall task, during which they are asked to match the sentences to the pictures of the people who said them. The underlying logic is that participants will tend to make a certain pattern of mistakes in their matching: they will confuse individuals with each other more readily to the extent that their mind has placed them in the same group (or, perhaps more accurately, to the extent that their mind has failed to encode differentiating features of the individuals). Framed in terms of race, we might expect that people will mistake a quote attributed to one black person with another, as they had been mentally grouped together, but will be less likely to mistake that quote for one attributed to a white person. Again, the question of interest here is how our minds might be grouping people: is it doing so on the basis of race per se, or on the basis of coalitions?

“Yes; it’s Photoshopped. And yes; you’re racist for asking”

In the first experiment, 8 pictures were presented, split evenly between young white and black males. From the verbal statements that accompanied each picture, they could be classified into one of two coalitions, though participants were not explicitly instructed to attend to that variable. All the men were dressed identically. In this condition, while subjects did appear to pick up on the coalition factor – evidenced by their being somewhat more likely to mistake people who belonged to same coalition with one another – the size of the race effect was twice as large. In other words, when the only cue to group membership was the statement accompanying each picture, people were more likely to mistake one white man for another more often than they were to mistake one member of a coalition for another.

In the second experiment, however, participants were given the same pictures, but now there was an additional visual cue to group membership: half of the men were wearing yellow jerseys while the other half wore gray. In this case, the color of the shirt predicted which coalition each man was in, but participants were again not told to pay attention to that explicitly. In this condition, the previous effect reversed: the size of the race effect was only half that of the effect for coalition membership. It seemed that giving people an alternative visual cue for group membership dramatically cut the race effect. In fact, in a follow-up study reported by the paper (using pictures of different men), the race effect disappeared. When provided with alternate visual cues to coalition membership, people seemed to be largely (though not necessarily entirely) disregarding race. This finding demonstrates that racial categorization is not always automatic and strong as it had previously been thought it to be.

Importantly, when this experiment was run using sex instead of race (i.e., 4 women and 4 men), the above effects did not replicate. Whether the cues to group membership were only verbal or whether they were verbal and visual, people continued to encode sex automatically and do so robustly, as evidenced again by their pattern of mistakes. Though white women and black men are both visually distinct from white men, additional visual cues to coalition membership only had an appreciable effect on latter group, consistent with the notion that the tendency people have to encode race is a byproduct of our coalitional psychology.

“With a little teamwork – black or white – we can all crush our enemies!”

The good news, then, is that people aren’t inherently racist; our evolutionary history wouldn’t allow it, given how far our ancestors likely traveled. We’re certainly interested in coalitions, these coalitions are frequently used to benefit our allies at the expense of non-members, and that part probably isn’t going away anytime soon, but that has a less morally-sinister tone to it for some reason. It is worth noting that, in the reality outside the lab, coalitions may well (and frequently seem to) form among racial or ethnic lines. Thankfully, as I mentioned initially, coalitions are also fluid things, and it (sometimes) only seems to take a small exposure to other visual indicators of membership to change the way people are viewed by others in that respect. Certainly useful information for anyone looking to reduce the impact of race-based categorization.

References: Kurzban, R., Tooby, J., & Cosmides, L. (2001). Can race be erased? Coalitional computation and social categorization. PNAS, 98, 15387-15392.

One comment on “Why Do People Care About Race?

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