Off the Couch

Are you in or are you out?

This weeks episode of “The Vote” on TV3 asked the question “Are we racist?  After debating the idea and surveying their viewers they reached the conclusion that 76{1b812f7ed7a77644fff58caf46676f6948311bf403a3d395b7a7f87010507f87} of people believe as a nation we are indeed, racist.

I’m not sure about that, but it got me thinking, what are the underlying psychological processes that can help us understand this tension?  This week Tony and I talked about this on the Radio Live Home and Garden Show (Click here for a link to the interview)

Social psychology has known for decades that as social beings we are hardwired to identify with those similar, and dislike those who are different.  Psychologists have experimentally manipulated many different variables, from sports team identification, race, age, sexuality even eye colour to re-confirm these results time and time again.  The basic result is that:

“people define themselves in terms of social groupings and are quick to denigrate others who don’t fit into those groups. Others who share our particular qualities are our “in-group,” and those who do not are our “out-group.” (Click here for the whole article).

 If this seems simple and obvious, it’s because it is.  But it’s far from the whole story.  It’s also true that as I’ve talked about over the last couple of weeks human beings are also hard wired to be empathic to our fellow humans, in fact we have been dubbed by some researchers as “Homo-empathicus” due to the fact that research suggests that we are naturally inclined to feel empathy and compassion: not hatred and prejudice.

So what does this mean?  Do we naturally like “others” or are we naturally suspicious of “difference?”  Well, it depends.  But the science can direct us towards a clear answer.  The problem of “out-grouping” is distance.  We are suspicious of difference when we don’t encounter it directly, one on one and face to face.   But when we relate and connect with people our natural tendency to be empathic will tend to take over, if we are open to being compassionate.

This story serves to illustrate the point:

“Claiborne Paul Ellis was born into a poor white family in Durham, North Carolina, in 1927. Finding it hard to make ends meet working in a garage and believing African Americans were the cause of all his troubles, he followed his father’s footsteps and joined the Ku Klux Klan, eventually rising to the top position of Exalted Cyclops of his local KKK branch.

In 1971 he was invited—as a prominent local citizen—to a 10-day community meeting to tackle racial tensions in schools, and was chosen to head a steering committee with Ann Atwater, a black activist he despised. But working with her exploded his prejudices about African Americans. He saw that she shared the same problems of poverty as his own. “I was beginning to look at a black person, shake hands with him, and see him as a human being,” he recalled of his experience on the committee. “It was almost like bein’ born again.” On the final night of the meeting, he stood in front of a thousand people and tore up his Klan membership card.”  (Click here for the whole article)

And I believe that’s what makes the growth of empathy research so encouraging.  It’s not just about mental health, but is also fundamentally political.  If as a nation we want to address this idea that apparently  76{1b812f7ed7a77644fff58caf46676f6948311bf403a3d395b7a7f87010507f87} of people believe we are a racist nation then we all need to do something.  We could start by relating, connecting and being open to people outside our comfort zone, and different from ourselves.

And the last word on Compassion should go to Daniel Goleman, one of the world’s leading researchers on emotions and “emotional intelligence” and one of my favorite researchers and writers in this area.


Leave a Comment

  • Gary Watts April 29, 2013, 12:52 pm

    Its so sad to recognise that nowadays (and also within New
    Zealand) very little people posses the ability (and skills, also
    experience)to have an in depth recognition of the term racisim. As
    yes it does exist within our society however it is very complex to
    fully understand and including extremely difficult to clearly
    identify. This is mainly because it merely or only prevails if we
    wish an introduction in several indirect forms in discrimination
    (usually by several sections of society)to continue.

    • Robyn April 29, 2013, 3:40 pm

      I had to read the above 3 times and I still don’t get

  • Robyn April 29, 2013, 9:13 pm

    Gary’s, that is.

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