Does racism stem from low intelligence? It's not entirely clear, though recent research found links between bigoted thinking and low scores on I.Q tests. But a new study points to an even deeper explanation for xenophobia and intolerance.
It suggests that prejudice is programmed into our genes.
The study, published January 24 in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, suggests that racism, for example, is essentially a holdover from ancient history - when humans lived in tribes and it made sense to view outsiders with hostility and fear.
Study author Dr. Mark van Vugttold the Telegraph that their research "suggests that the human mind is shaped in a way that tends to perpetuate conflict with 'outsiders'."
Van Vugt and his co-authors launched their research in an effort to find support for what's known as the "male warrior hypothesis." That's the notion that that men evolved to show aggression against other men whom they think belong to an 'outgroup.' Racist thinking is one result of such a belief. But as one of Van Gugt's co-authors, Michigan State University biologist Dr. Carlos Navarrete, told The Huffington Post in an email, it also helps account for rivalries and outright hostility on the basis of "nationality, ethnicity, school, tribe, gang, corporation, political party/faction, and the like."
And, yes, football fans, the hypothesis may also account for the hostility among fans of rival teams. True, we might not tend to think as sports rivalries as manifestation of racism. But evidence suggests that all sorts of human activities that pit one person against another may arise out of the same genetic package.
Is prejudice only a male thing? Not quite. But the study's authors say their research suggests that men more or less started it, writing in the paper that ingroup-outgroup fireworks "could have affected the social psychologies of men and women differently."
A LiveScience report suggests that physical appearance may also play a role in prejudiced thinking:
"In a previous study, Navarrete found that white women evaluated black men differently depending on where they were in their menstrual cycle; they rated the men most negatively, in terms of attractiveness and scariness, when they were most likely to conceive. Other studies found that, regardless of race, women view physically formidable men more negatively than weaker-looking men. Taken together, the researchers suggest that women may instinctually avoid people who pose the greatest reproductive threat — formidable outgroup males."
Navarette said the negative response wouldn't be expected "If a woman is acquainted with a person of a different race, and she knows this person to not be physically coercive or dangerous in other ways." In that case, he said, she might even have a more positive reaction to such a person, because a foreign mate would have the bonus of adding diversity to the gene pool.
Perhaps surprisingly, the researchers are optimistic about making things better. Prejudice will still be here as long as ingroup/outgroup-style thinking is around, but making people feel like they're all part of the same group would do a lot to help us all play nice.
Said Navarette, "The more information people have about the target, the less they should expect race to be diagnostic of behavior."