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Sep 12, 2022

How Can We Reduce Discrimination Between Groups? The Power of Us (video)

Humans are inclined to identify with groups. This can lead us in good or bad directions. How can we harness this propensity to encourage social cohesion?

By Dominic J. Packer, PhD & Jay J. Van Bavel, PhD

Early in our evolutionary history and housed in close-knit communities, humans found comfort and safety by banding together in coalitions with shared identities. In today’s complex societies, many people gravitate, sometimes unconsciously, towards people of the same race. But can these racial biases be overwritten? Could greater, overarching, and more inclusive identities take their place?

To put this to the test, we ran a study where volunteers who identified as White were randomly assigned to one of two groups:

Team Leopards or Team Tigers.

The volunteers were shown photos of members of both teams and learned that the teams included people of different races. Their own team included six Black and six White individuals, as did the other team.

Having memorized who was on each team, participants were shown the photos again inside of a brain scanner to gauge whether their new team identity affected their brain activity.

Whereas previous research had observed racial biases in brain activity, these participants’ brain responses closely reflected their new Leopard or Tiger identities, rather than their race. This activity was most distinct in a region of the brain called the amygdala, which is responsible for processing emotions and responding to important stimuli.

When examining other measures of bias, we found that participants rated in-group members (fellow teammates) more positively than out-group members, but there were no differences based on race.

These results suggest that our brains are far from being wired for racism. Rather, they seem designed to adopt social identities — identities that can either reinforce or break down preexisting prejudices.

Social psychologists have also conducted field studies to further evaluate how people can use social identities to create more cohesion in the real world.

In 2014, a jihadist organization known as ISIS engaged in genocide against religious minorities in northern Iraq, causing large numbers of people to flee to refugee camps. When they later returned, many found their homes looted or destroyed. These events decimated social cohesion in the region and were especially damaging to relations between Christians and Muslims.

Salma Mousa, professor of political science at Yale University, ran an experiment to see if she could use shared identities as an intervention to help bring together members of the region’s fractured Muslim and Christian communities.

The shared identity? A mutual passion for soccer.

Working with local partners, she set up four youth soccer leagues to see if she could create positive contact and thereby provide a foundation for social cohesion in the aftermath of violence and devastation.

While these sports teams were usually segregated by religion, she randomly assigned additional Muslim players to a set of Christian teams, creating a condition of mixed-religion teams. Other teams received additional Christian players and were not mixed-religion. Though this was stressful to implement, the results were remarkable.

At the end of the season, Christian players on mixed-religion teams were more willing to train with Muslims in the future, vote for a Muslim to win a sportsmanship prize, and sign up for a mixed-religion team the next season.

In addition, team success amplified these effects. For Christian players on more successful mixed-religion teams, they were more likely to visit a restaurant in a Muslim city and attend another mixed-religion social event.

Mousa’s study demonstrates that by sharing a group identity and working together, members of two deeply divided religious groups were able to start to bridge what had seemed like an impossible divide.

Of course, when it comes to tackling bias and discrimination, shared identities are only a part of the story. Other obstacles to reducing bias and discrimination reside in the social structures and institutions that make up the social order. These are innumerable and can include everything from how tax dollars flow to support schools in different neighborhoods to where police officers are sent on patrol to (as we discuss in our book) how safety standards are tested in cars. Addressing these more systemic issues is crucial, in addition to considering how biases in technology and algorithms are even now creating additional challenges.

Our research suggests three key lessons when figuring out how to reduce bias and discrimination:

  1. Humans are not hardwired for racism, but we did evolve to be “group-ish”.

  2. Our propensity to identify with groups can lead us in good or bad directions. We need to leverage the potential opportunity to bring people together by building more inclusive identities and institutions.

  3. Indeed, shared identities are powerful for bridging divides, so finding common ground is often a critical first step in bringing people together. But this is just a starting point — biases are also embedded in structures and institutions and can easily return.

With support from Templeton World Charity Foundation, psychologists Dominic Packer from Lehigh University and Jay Van Bavel from New York University have produced a multi-part video series, diving into key concepts from their book The Power of Us. The goal of the project and the book is to help people harness their shared identities to improve performance, increase cooperation, and promote social harmony.