Sci-Fi Morality: Could Aliens Save Us from Prejudice?

The violence in Gaza earlier this year reminded us -- one more time -- of how deep the rancor between Israel and the Arab world can run. One of the truisms about this and other ethnic conflicts is that they are older than any one person. On that view, divisions between groups take on a life of their own, and seem capable of controlling the minds of the individuals involved. Worse, the well-worn path through which conflicts sow resentment and fear among young generations suggests that animosity between groups may inevitably endure.

Then how is it that, in a summer blockbuster from the mid-'90s, the conflict between nations is erased over the course of 36 hours? In Independence Day, Iraqi and Israeli fighter jets flew side by side, and soldiers from China, Russia, and the U.S. cooperated like a single nation, with nary a sideways glance exchanged between modern or ancient enemies. All it took was an alien invasion. Stereotypically advanced, gooey, and heartless, an unnamed race of aggressors coasted in on Dallas-sized destroyers, blew up the major cities of the world, and extinguished millennia of international disputes in one go. More recently, the classic-comic-turned-blockbuster Watchmen featured worldwide peace brought on by the destruction 5th term president Nixon and the rest of the world believes was caused by a godlike superhero. Evidently, uniting enemies is as simple as detonating all of their capitals at once.

Would a threat like the one depicted in typical sci-fi Armageddon picture really bring people together, or would tribes and nations keep at each other's throats even in the presence of a common enemy? There may be more shark-jumping than realism in the rest of Independence Day, Watchmen, or similar films, but this question still gets at the heart of a growing debate in psychology about how ingrained the emotions and prejudice associated with intergroup conflict really are.

Mountains of evidence suggest that being part of a group changes our perceptions of members of other groups at startlingly basic levels. Split us by nation, ethnicity, or political party and each of us will see the people on our side of the fence as more trustworthy, kind, and competent than the other group. Wedge issues separating groups need not be as salient as race or politics to affect our feelings: 40 years of research on minimal groups, pioneered by the psychologist Henri Tajfel, demonstrated that splitting us based on seemingly arbitrary dimensions (my preference for Kandinsky's paintings to your preference for Klee's, or in more modern instantiations, my enjoyment of South Park to your distaste for it) can mobilize senses of inter-group competition, pride, and animosity as well.

Social group formation is probably one manifestation of a more basic principle of the mind: faced with a world too complex for us to process and interact with simultaneously, the brain's response is to pare down the environment into manageable chunks by categorizing. In essence, categorization allows us to run a mental script confirming that "this chair is somehow similar to every other chair," or "this foreigner is somehow similar to every other foreigner," simplifying an otherwise unmanageable rush of information. Once a social category has been made, people's protection of their own identity motivates them to decide that their group is not only different, but also superior to others.

The results of group categorization are more pernicious than many think, partially because of how hidden they can be. Staggering civilian casualties in ethnic conflict and 19th century definitions of African slaves in the U.S. as 60% human are clear manifestations of inter-group bias, easily spotted and condemned. Implicit -- or non-conscious -- forms of social categorization are more difficult to track. For example, methods developed in the last decade have demonstrated that even people who avoid reporting a bias against social outgroups may "leak" that bias through implicit tests, for example by being quicker to associate negative words with black faces than with white ones (a result that often takes people by surprise; you can try it yourself here). Implicit bias, in turn, can predict behaviors committed unwittingly, such as subtle hostility towards an African-American job interviewee.

Yet the most damaging effect of social categorization may be a cognitive sin of omission: research has demonstrated that people imagine that outsiders may actually be less "human" than members of their own group. For example, while we share some emotional states (fear, attraction, rage) with other animals, other, more subtle emotions (resentment, hope, envy) require the complex machinery of human minds. Members of one group typically believe that other groups fail to experience these uniquely human emotions (a phenomenon known as infrahumanization). Recent evidence gathered by the psychologists Lasana Harris and Susan Fiske demonstrates that neural activity involved in thinking about the minds of other people can simply shut off when viewing members of especially derogated outgroups -- such as the homeless and drug addicted -- suggesting that at a very basic level, we push these people's minds out of our own.

Like other flavors of categorization, imagining that other groups lack complex feelings can be necessary to our survival, and -- more darkly -- to our ability to harm others during conflict. Fully processing the emotional states of everyone we see would make commuting in New York even more exhausting than it already is, and our natural aversion to suffering would prevent us from killing in war if we allowed ourselves to think about the other side's fear. By denying strangers, foreigners, and enemies human qualities, we can justify the extraordinary pain we may cause those people in conflict.

Simplifying other people through infrahumanization can be a crucial shut-off valve to the guilt caused by inflicting suffering on other human beings in war, and when considering the legality of practices such as waterboarding. But are those really the actions we want to protect through our rationalizations? Perhaps more importantly, do we have to think in ways that justify these measures? Are our thoughts about other groups hard-wired, or flexible?

The fact that group attitudes like stereotypes function outside of awareness has led many to argue that they are reflections of our "true" feelings about out-groups: the way we would admit to feeling if we weren't worried about offending anyone. Automaticity, in this view, is a sign of inevitability. But in the last few years, neuroscientific and psychological research has begun demonstrating a number of ways in which our automatic biases can be reversed. First, forcing people to "individuate" outgroup members -- thinking of them as unique as opposed to a faceless other -- may reverse mental grouping. For example, Harris and Fiske found that the same neural processes that are shut off when people look at derogated outgroups can be turned back on if subjects are made to think about the content of those people's minds (by have to answer questions such as "do you think this particular homeless person would prefer carrots or celery?"). In the real world, witnessing the emotions of even hated out-groups can have similar impact.

One example of this stems from an experimental court system set up in Rwanda to deal with the overpopulation of prisons following the genocide there in 1994. In these gacaca trials, perpetrators of violence go to the villages where they committed atrocities and face their victims' families, directly asking for forgiveness; the tribe then collectively decides on the perpetrator's sentence. This process is predictably jarring for both perpetrators and victims, and has been criticized by many. However, a recent study showed that while gacaca courts make both sides of the conflict feel more generally negative emotions, they also cause each side to feel less negatively about the other group, and to see their enemy group as less homogeneous, perhaps helping to eliminate infrahumanization. Other field studies have demonstrated that people who avoid infrahumanizing are more likely to want to avoid inter-group conflict, even in cases where it has deep and painful history. In the UK, people's thoughts about the emotions experienced by the other side translated into desires for peace in Northern Ireland; in the US, people's tendency to think about the emotions of others predicts their condemnation of non-traditional interrogation techniques. The Israeli novelist, Amos Oz -- who after his military service became a founding member of Peace Now -- wrote that a longstanding truce between Israel and Palestine would require more "imagination" from both sides. This may be especially true of each group's ability to imagine the feelings of the other one.

Another way of overturning the effects of out-grouping follows from the flexibility of how we define ourselves. None of us have a single identity, but rather many ways of casting ourselves (you can simultaneously be a woman, Asian, an Omaha native, a Philadelphia resident, a democrat, Red Sox fan, and a rock drummer), each of which defines a different group we are part of. When someone belongs to one of our groups (say, a fellow Red Sox fan), we may be able to ignore other ways in which they differ from us (like gender or ethnicity). A recent study by psychologist Jay Van Bavel has shown that even Tajfel's minimal groups can do the trick: finding out that you are on the same arbitrary "team" as a different-race person erases automatic negative racial bias against them.

One great hope for eliminating group bias, infrahumanization, and their consequences is through defining ourselves through broader groups than we are used to (think of Obama's early signature: "we are not red states or blue states..."). The best group of all for us to be part of -- in terms of eliminating conflict -- is simply being human. This becomes easier when there is a common goal, or common threat, to tying us to that group. While aliens and demigods do the trick nicely in Independence Day and Watchmen, there are certainly other threats that affect every person. Climate change comes to mind. If you're a sci-fi fan, so does The Day After Tomorrow.

Global threats have at least one advantage: they define us as a global group. Think of this excerpt from Independence Day's President and fighter pilot, Bill Pullman's speech: "We can't be consumed by our petty differences anymore. We will be united in our common interest...our freedom, not from tyranny, oppression, or persecution, but from annihilation. We're fighting for our right to live." While total global cooperation might still be sci-fi, to the extent that people learn to focus on worldwide problems affecting all of us, we might be able to chip away at some old, painful divisions.