Is racism the result of our own evolution?

In the late 1940’s, a shocking experiment carried out by two African-American psychologists changed the way we think about racial prejudice…


Kenneth Bancroft Clark, a psychologist and teacher at the City College of New York, and his wife, Mamie Phipps Clark, were both activists in the Civil Rights Movement. Together, they founded the Northside Center for Child Development in Harlem and Kenneth Clark went on to become the first black president of the American Psychological Association.

In their landmark experiment, children between the ages of three and seven were shown two dolls, each identical except that one doll was white with yellow hair, the other, brown with black hair. The children were then asked which doll they would rather play with; which was the nice doll; which was the bad doll; which the nicer colour, and so forth.

The experiment revealed that all the children expressed a clear preference for the white doll. But the deeply unsettling discovery was that the black children also preferred the white doll when asked the same questions. The Clark’s findings exposed the internalised racism in African-American children and a self-hatred more acute among children attending segregated schools.

Psychologists and sociologists believe one of the reasons for this result is that many Western cultures harbour a taken for granted assumption that while people – supposedly civilised, and technologically advanced – are better than other races.

Living for many years in South Africa, I have had first hand experience of these beliefs. Before the end of Apartheid, black people were brought up with the idea that the whites were superior. They were not just taught that the whites were superior, the whites had done a pretty good job of proving they were superior – they lived in bigger more luxurious houses that were cleaned and maintained by black servants; they owned expensive motor cars, where the blacks walked to work or rode on overcrowded trains and buses; the whites owned TV sets, practiced their religion in beautiful buildings, sent their children to better schools and enjoyed undreamt of wealth.

By the 1960’s, most African Countries were transitioning to Independence. Black African’s dreams of Uhuru – freedom – were at last about to be realised. Ordinary people expected independence to bring them a share of the wealth and with it, better living standards, better housing, better education, better medical care, and a say in the way their countries were governed. Most important, there was a [perhaps unrealistic] expectation that overnight the shacks would be demolished to make way for modern housing; everyone would drive their own motor cars and watch large TV sets.

But apart from a new and relatively small black privileged elite, the majority of the population still walked or rode to work on overcrowded trains and buses, and after cleaning the impressive mansions, went home to their overcrowded shacks and no electricity. Eventually, the truth began to dawn… despite queuing in the blistering sun for hours on end to put a cross on a piece of paper, nothing had changed. Nor for most people was it likely to. Slowly, the realisation began to dawn… the whites were superior after all!

You see the difficulty? This way of thinking had been drummed into the poor for generations – and it’s a difficult idea to shake.

But the real problem is even deeper rooted. Over hundreds of thousands of years, we have learned to be protective of our own group or our own tribe – after all, the tribe from the other side of the mountain might want to steal our crops, our livestock, or our women, or take our children into slavery. So we have learned to be distrustful of strangers. And if they look different or behave differently than us, we are bound to be even more suspicious.

Our brains have evolved to help us make snap decisions, even if it means thinking the worst about people. When presented with negative information about another person our brains will react accordingly – the metaphorical alarm bells start ringing, reinforcing any negative ideas we may have about strangers.

A team of researchers led by Professor Robin Murphy at Oxford University and reported in the Journal of Cognitive Science, used functional MRI scans to examine the brains of 22 participants while they carried out a series of learning tasks. These tasks featured imaginary social groups that, for the purposes of the experiment, were portrayed as either good or bad. The groups represented majorities and minorities, as well as racial or religious groups. During the experiment, the majority groups were presented to the participants more often. The behaviour of each group was also an important factor in the experiment.

As the participants carried out the tasks, which involved reading fictional information about the groups, the anterior temporal lobe – one of the areas of the brain that deals with semantic memory and the association with people and places – was examined for any changes in activity.

Once a participant had decided a group was good or presented no threat, the activity in the anterior temporal lobe reduced to normal levels, but if the group was perceived as bad, the participants continued to process the information negatively, increasing activity. The scientists believe this indicates the brain works harder to process negative information and also leads to an increased negative view.

While the study was restricted to a relatively small number of people, it was also significant as all the participants reacted in the same way. Thus it is likely that these patterns would exist in wider society.

Previous studies have demonstrated similar results, confirming that people are predisposed to make snap judgements about others. For instance, football fans need more time to associate positive words with an opposing club than with their own team and supporters of a particular political party more quickly and readily associate a favourable attribute with their party than with political rivals.

A number of brain regions are thought to be involved in making these kind of judgements. They include the amygdala – associated with fear and anger – the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex. The connections between these regions are also, coincidentally, recognised as pathways that affect judgement and behaviour during hypnosis, particularly when it comes to the separation of actions from the ability to be critical of and scrutinise those actions.

Of course, when only limited information is available, there is always the possibility that poor choices, not to mention poor decisions will be made when relying on first impressions. Such snap decisions may have negative results in complex modern societies, but they have in the distant past provided us with an evolutionary benefit and survival strategy at a time when stereotypes and prejudice were a useful time-saving device, or at least a rough guide in situations where rapid decision making was important.

The research is important because the findings provide useful information about how the brain learns prejudice. However, it would also be interesting to look at how the brain unlearns a stereotype. In that circumstance, would the anterior temporal lobe still be involved? Would its activity or structure tell us something about why some individuals stick to false beliefs when the evidence proves otherwise?

We are not born to dislike people who are different – discrimination against unfamiliar people is a learned trait. Discrimination and conflict across cultures is of great interest to psychologists who question whether we are naturally inclined to like people who are similar to ourselves and to dislike those who are different, or whether discrimination is a learned behaviour.

To find out more, Scientists at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver looked at the reaction of babies as they interacted with people who spoke familiar and different languages.

At the age of one, babies believe speakers of the same language are ‘good’ and expect them to be helpful and positive toward them. At this age, they do not show any bias toward people who speak an unfamiliar language or expect them to act negatively. We can conclude they are not born with any bias. It is not until the age of three that they tend to discriminate against the unfamiliar and this suggests that discrimination and negativity toward groups different from their own is likely learned after the first year of life.

But by the age of three, children begin to show positive biases toward people who are similar to them and negative biases towards those who are different.

Researchers conducted six experiments with 456 infants between the ages of eight months and 16 months. The experiments examined how quickly infants acclimatised or ‘habituated’ to either familiar or unfamiliar language speakers. Habituation measures how infants process pictures and sounds presented to them. When the information meets infant’s expectations, their attention drops off at a faster rate. By measuring infant’s rate of habituation to familiar and unfamiliar languages, the researchers measured whether the infants had formed positive or negative biases.

The language speakers were presented via puppet shows with characters that would perform either ‘pro-social’ (giving) behaviour or ‘anti-social’ (taking) behaviour. Across all the experiments, the researchers found that by the age of one, infants not only think of speakers of their native language as good, but they also expect them to be pro-social. Conversely, they appeared to be surprised when observing speakers of their native language engaging in anti-social behaviour.

The study provides critical insight into the origins of social group bias by allowing researchers to understand how positivity and negativity toward groups develops.


During the filming of the very first Planet of the Apes movie in 1968, many extras were employed – some dressed as Apes, and some (un)dressed as humans. Charlton Heston, the star of the film, said that Planet of the Apes had ‘the best movie ending ever.’ That apart, lunch breaks during filming were marked by a series of unexpected and highly unusual developments and psychologists have argued over its causes for decades.

At the start of the week, extras mixed freely together – ‘apes’ ate lunch with humans and vice versa. But by the end of the week, humans and apes began to separate into groups – like sitting with like. By the end of the second week, the ‘apes’ too started to separate themselves into groups of chimpanzees, gorillas, and in keeping with their exalted position in the movie, the orang-utans bagged the best tables. No one told them to do this – it just happened.

Children are not inherently biased. Living in the new South Africa for many years, white and black children were allowed to mix freely for the first time. Watching these very young children play at Zoo Lake in Johannesburg, one could be excused for thinking that apartheid had never happened. [I took the precaution of taking a social worker with me, for obvious reasons!]

However, the same colour-blindness did not extend to the older children, and certainly not to the adults. Old habits die hard I suppose, but my study proved the point.

The following week, I was at the University of Stellenbosch talking about hypnosis to a very enthusiastic, and large, audience of students. The white students took up most of the front half of the auditorium, the Indian students sat in their own area, as did the ‘coloured’ students, while the relatively few black students remained huddled towards the back.

Racism may indeed be the product of our evolution, but I have no doubt it is prolonged by cultural mores.

If only we could retain some of the innocence we all had as children.


Copyright Andrew Newton 2016. All rights reserved.