January 23, 2021

The nature of prejudice and the culture of the encounter | Science

The nature of prejudice and the culture of the encounter | Science

Our mind makes automatic associations and ignores contradictory information because in a moment of evolution this characteristic has been functional for survival. Our ancestors lived in very homogeneous small groups, which were threatened by external groups. Being able to make quick social decisions became an adaptive strategy in order to protect the group itself. Since then, our brain evolved to make rapid social judgments based on isolated characteristics. Today we live in a completely different social environment, where heterogeneity and multiculturalism are highly positive for communities. However, in many circumstances, our brain continues to function as it did millions of years ago. That is when prejudice acts, which can be defined as attitudes, emotions or negative behaviors that are directed towards members of a group because they belong to it.

Decades of research in various fields, including psychology, economics, sociology and neurosciences, provide data that allow us to reflect on the nature of prejudice. In an increasingly forceful way we observe that it is not necessarily a rational process that emerges from hostility. On the other hand, prejudice is usually implicit, that is, involuntary, non-intentional, and, to a certain extent, uncontrollable. In this sense, implicit prejudice is differentiated from prejudiced attitudes that are explicitly and consciously held because while these are linked to the activity of areas that process judgment and abstract thinking as the prefrontal cortex, the implicit prejudice is associated with the activation of emotional regions of the brain.

Various investigations suggest that prejudice and stereotypes operate as a network of cognitive associations. This means that, throughout our lives, we have been forming associations between concepts and negative or positive evaluations. And, of course, we act on them. It impacts then in our daily life, in how we behave with others. We can observe them in the processes of personnel selection, in the conduct of the vote, and even in the practice of medicine. A paradigm widely used in these investigations is called Implicit Association Test that allows us to measure the strength of associations by quantifying the time it takes to do them. When associations are strong, it is easier and faster to connect the concepts. This test has a web page to be able to collect data from people around the world. Thus, researchers continue to collect information on how prejudice operates in relation to different issues, racial, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, age, among others.

Research has shown that the implicit bias can be reduced and even reversed through appropriate changes in the social environment. For example, positive contact with people from other social groups can reduce prejudicial attitudes. The reconceptualization of prejudice must consider these strategies that operate on the whole society because prejudice is not the property of a few malicious people, but involves cognitive architecture and the dynamics of social relations.

Various investigations suggest that prejudice and stereotypes operate as a network of cognitive associations

An admirable and exemplary action is carried out by the Argentine musician and conductor Daniel Barenboim through the project he created in 1999 together with the Palestinian intellectual Edward Said: the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, which brings together musicians from all over the world but that, especially, forms a collective work space between Israeli and Arab music professionals. It promotes the meeting through music, mutual respect, dialogue, reflection and knowledge of cultures and, therefore, peace.

Facundo Manes He holds a PhD in Sciences from the University of Cambridge, a neurologist, a neuroscientist, a researcher from CONICET and the Australian Research Council (ACR) Center of Excellence in Cognition and its Disorders, President of the INECO Foundation and professor at the Favaloro University (Argentina), University of California San Francisco-UCSF-, Medical University of South Carolina (USA) and Macquarie University (Australia).


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