This is my column this week in the New Zealand Herald. Click here for the original article…
“Why is it people only care about those immediate to them rather than applying the same caring to all in society?” via Twitter
If you believe the research: deep down, we’re all racist and xenophobic.
So why is it hard to generate caring for people we don’t know? And for others, why is that caring limited by political views?
Psychologists have studied this very topic since the inception of the discipline, in part at least because how groups relate to one another is so integral to the functioning of society, and in many ways underlies every war or atrocity ever committed in history. The history of civilization is pretty much a history of killing those that are different.
It’s this history that leads evolutionary psychologists to believe that this sort of behavior is hard wired. We seem to gravitate to those that look, sound and act like us, and be fearful and suspicious of those that look and sound different.
Social psychologists talk about “in group/ out group” phenomena, and again it seems an innate human trait. For those that we see as “our people” (in group) it is relatively easy to generate compassion, and those we consider different (out group) easy to dismiss, to not care.
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Freud believed that we all had innate primitive drives, he described this part of the human consciousness as the “id” and believed it was the task of civilized people to channel and overcome these primitive aggressive drives.
Now before you ridicule me for bringing up Freud, we now understand that there are actually very powerful unconscious biases at work, especially when it comes to race and difference.
Overall, the research on unconscious bias tends to suggest we are all more racist and xenophobic than we would feel comfortable admitting to ourselves, or anyone else.
Nowhere is this more clear, or more dangerous than in law enforcement, for example the extreme events occurring with terrifying regularity in the USA. As a result research into unconscious biases about race has informed training programs for police in various states in the USA.
Shocked yet? Good. But change is always possible and (to paraphrase Freud) what helps is to make these ideas conscious, so we can actively change them. And whether you think about these attitudes as unconscious biases, primal urges or tribalism encoded in our genes it doesn’t matter.
Being kinder to those who don’t automatically feel like “our people” is entirely possible. It just takes work.
It helps to consciously expand our ideas about who we see as like us. It helps to spend more time with people who are different, look different and sound different. Experiences break down and change attitudes.
It also helps to consciously focus on extending feelings of compassion to those in pain or suffering, especially strangers or those different to us. Many compassion-based approaches to mindfulness meditation do just this.
And if you need a selfish reason, anger, hate and suspicion aren’t good for you. Being able to turn our mind towards compassion and seeing the world through another’s eyes is good for us, and decreases our overall stress levels.
And how many things can you do for yourself that is also good for the human race, not to mention world peace?