Why is it that we humans so easily develop negative images of people unlike us? We seem to be predisposed to have prejudicial perceptions of the other: people of a different color, religion, politics, etc. We seem to be quite ready to believe the worst about “those people.” With minimal information about them we leap to conclusions that they are “bad guys,” and then require mountains of positive data to turn our impressions around, in order to look upon them favorably.
This propensity for negative stereotyping is a serious problem in society, especially as social media and biased websites feed us prejudicial beliefs. Society has become increasingly polarized, as people become swayed by these negative images. Why can't we be kinder to each other?
Some recent research sheds a little light on the issue. The findings of sophisticated brain scans conclusively show that our brain responds more strongly and quickly to information about groups who are portrayed unfavorably, than it does about people we like and view favorably. The researchers were not trying to examine existing built-in prejudices of the subjects tested, but instead created new negative feelings about some previously neutral object and then watched what happened in the brain, in order to gain knowledge of what is going on in there.
What they found is that activity in the anterior temporal pole (ATP) occurred when subjects were fed prejudiced information about an object or person. As the negative information was repeated, ATP activity gradually increased—reinforcing the created bias. In contrast, when a test subject was informed that a “bad person” had done something good, the ATP was quiet. Similarly, when the subject was given information about “good people,” the ATP was also quiet.
Interestingly, for these two latter situations—while the ATP was inactive—the prefrontal cortex (PFC) of the subject became activated. This is the part of the brain where higher-level cognitive functioning occurs. So, while the ATP seems to be involved in knee-jerk prejudicial thinking, when we respond more positively, we seem to use the analyzing skills of the PFC to counter our bias. It seems that we need to consciously work on seeing the positive.
This research, as is true for much scientific research, does a neat job of answering the “How?” question. But why do we react so intolerably? It seems that the reason is most likely the result of evolution. Here's the process: Our brain uses many tricks to simplify its job. Every second, our senses bombard the brain with mountains of information. In order not to become swamped, the brain cleverly simplifies and abbreviates this information. One of the simplifying tricks the brain does is to cluster people into groups, since it cuts down on the amount of data that the brain must process. Long ago, when we lived in small bands, it was advantageous for us to automatically lean toward classifying the “other” (say, someone in another tribe) negatively—it was safer to do so. Better to think that that guy I meet out in the bush means harm to me—especially if he looks weird—and take defensive action. To do so, I might live another day, especially if he is threatening.
This predilection to look unfavorably on the “other” may have been once useful for survival in that simple world. It's not so useful today, when we have societal mechanisms in place to better insure that people behave and that the “other” may turn out to be a pretty good guy after all. Maybe it's time we exercised our introspective prefrontal cortex more and let our knee-jerk anterior temporal pole relax.