You’re more prejudiced than you think

Pic Credit: Master Isolated Images

Pic Credit: Master Isolated Images

Our brains are constantly at work, processing messages and releasing hormones based on often-unconscious cues. These hormones influence our moods and behaviors, and I invite you today to become a little more aware of how your sense of relatedness can trigger them.

I like to start my cross-cultural trainings by saying that it’s completely normal to have stereotypes. We’re simply wired that way – when someone looks different or we don’t know them, our first natural reaction is that of protecting ourselves. This might show up as mistrust and fear. Our brains release stress hormones to shut off logical thinking processes so we can react faster from the more basic fight-or-flight modes.

Stereotypes become problematic if we only take negative information about a people, or if we insist on them and believe that every single German is always punctual, or every single US American is a cowboy. Thankfully, with a little conversation, understanding can be improved and people can often find things they have in common.

Your nose is the best doorman

Our brains make a call whether the people we meet will be friends or enemies without our conscious input. Your nose is a great tool here. For example, you’ve probably heard about the smelly T-Shirt experiment, where scientists were able to show that we’re not attracted to the smells of our own relatives, which makes us more likely to choose mates from other tribes. Helps with genetic diversity and adaptation.

Just like some hormones alert us to the fact that strangers are different, we also have hormones that influence our sense of connection. Mothers giving birth, for example, experience a strong release of oxytocin. This helps with so-called pair bonding and generally encourages maternal behavior. According to Wikipedia,

For this reason, it is sometimes referred to as the "love hormone". There is some evidence that oxytocin promotes ethnocentric behavior, incorporating the trust and empathy of in-groups with their suspicion and rejection of outsiders.[3] Furthermore, genetic differences in the oxytocin receptor gene (OXTR) have been associated with maladaptive social traits such as aggressive behaviour.[4]

Other research even shows that when you deliver oxytocin via a nasal spray, you are significantly more likely to collaborate with strangers (Kosfeld et al, 2005).  

In-groups make all the difference in China

Yes, you guessed it, there are cultural differences to how much we trust strangers. In countries where e.g. respect is allocated by achievement, it is easier to enter into business negotiations with people you don’t know, as long as they can prove a strong track-record of success and doing their jobs well.

In ascription-oriented countries, especially if there’s an orientation towards the community as well, people have to rely on well-established relationships. “Guanxi” describes the Chinese concept of your network, where “nei” is your in-group, and “wai” is your out-group. Without “Guanxi”, you won’t get anywhere, as British supermarket giant Tesco recently discovered. Getting into the in-group takes time, and many a cup of tea over pleasant conversation, before ever talking about business.

The redeeming quality of prejudice and stereotypes is that once you know they happen at an unconscious level, you can work on making them conscious.

Question your assumptions.

As a society, I believe we’re moving toward a more integrated view. TV, the internet, and globalized business are all helping us be more exposed to cultures from all over the world. We’re learning about different points-of-view and behaviors simply by going to our local deli, exotic restaurants, or working with international team members.

While your first reaction may be “oh, weird”, the more you eat at that restaurant or the more you work with that new person, the more you will get to know them. Your brain will become more familiar seeing faces that look different from the one it sees in the mirror, and gradually, our ideas of in-groups will broaden.

At least that’s what I’m hoping. Since it has taken millennia to form our self-protection circuits, getting to an unconscious openness to strangers may take a while longer. But I also believe that a lot of prejudice is learned, so we can definitely educate our children to question their assumptions.

Like this teacher did: