What do phobias teach us about racism?

In 2003, a 25-year-old Marquis Hodspeth was murdered by police in Shreveport, Louisiana, in the deep south of the United States. The officers stopped him because he wasn’t driving – they wanted to check if he was drinking. A routine job, you might think. But it went wrong. When he came out, he reached out his hands in front of him and showed the cell phone he was holding. Seconds later, he lay lifeless on the ground, nine bullets in his back.

His crime? it was black. The officers saw something shiny metallic and decided in a flash to be on the safe side. A flash of milliseconds sealed the irreplaceable human life. In those milliseconds, psychological processes regressed upon each other in the minds of the agents to form the decision. To pull the trigger or not. This is psychology at the forefront.

Unfortunately, we know that this example does not stand alone. The Black Lives Matter MovementThe movement rightly complains that people of color are more likely to die from a police bullet. What is going on here? To address this disturbing disparity, we must first understand where these biases come from.

Spiders and snakes

From the point of view of biological evolution, there are two possibilities: either racial biases are innate, or they are learned. It seems odd that bias can become embedded in our genes and be passed on from generation to generation. However, there are indications in this direction. Not directly from racism, but from research on other biases. I’m talking about the fear of spiders and snakes.

If you think about it, it’s crazy that a lot of people have a phobic fear of spiders and snakes (3-5%), or have some kind of horror of them (30%). Because those animals are completely harmless in our area. There are other, more serious things. For example, cars or weapons. cleaning products. kitchen knives. So why are people not afraid of that? This imbalance shows that the fear of spiders and snakes is irrational and arbitrary. We have a bias against spiders and snakes.

This fear may be well-established genetics. To this day, tens of thousands of people around the world die every year from snake bites. So we can assume that snakes have been dangerous throughout our evolutionary history, giving frightened humans a greater chance of survival. In addition, humans are not the only animal that fears snakes. We share this fear with other apes. And this is interesting, because by researching with monkeys we found out how this fear of snakes develops.

If you put monkeys from the wild in front of a fake snake and behind it a cute bunch of bananas, they will shrink again and they will not dare to go to bananas. But what about monkeys that grew up in the lab? If the fear of snakes is innate, it should also recede. But nothing could be further from the truth: Lab monkeys walk straight in search of bananas. This proves that the fear of snakes is not innate.

So you must learn. but how? This became clear from further research. When the lab monkeys saw video images of certain people becoming afraid of seeing a snake, they themselves were startled by the fake snake. Monkeys learn to fear each other. But this is not the full story. Because if the video images are manipulated in such a way that fear can be seen in a flower instead of a snake, then after viewing the images, they become lab monkeys Not Afraid of flowers.

genetically determined

How are we supposed to understand this? The fear of snakes is clearly not innate, but snakes have a special, innate meaning. Monkeys are genetically predisposed to fear snakes, but they only become really afraid after they first see this fear in their own species. Would it be the same with humans?

If you show people pictures of spiders or snakes that are always followed by an annoying electrical stimulus on the wrist, they will gradually become more and more afraid of those pictures. This is understandable. But here it comes: This is faster and easier with pictures of spiders or snakes than with pictures of flowers. Just like lab monkeys.

This explains why not everyone has a phobic reaction to spiders and snakes: although we all have a genetic predisposition to fear these animals, this only appears if we also have negative experiences with them. So fearful prejudices are innate, but they appear only after some unpleasant experience. What about racial prejudice?

To check this, you can replace the pictures of spiders/snakes and flowers with pictures of black and white faces, and have them followed again by an annoying electrical stimulator. What does it look like? White targets of fear develop more quickly and easily with black faces than with white faces. This is reflected in the black subjects. Fear develops more quickly and easily with white faces than with black faces.

Racial prejudices, such as the fear of spiders and snakes, seem innate, but only appear after a few unpleasant experiences. So: everyone has a tendency to be a racist.

But the story has another surprising twist. Because prejudice itself has nothing to do with racial characteristics. We know this because the same effects are found when white people are divided into random groups. After a while, people of one group will learn to fear faster and easier when they receive electrical stimuli when seeing people from the second group (and vice versa). This shows that we have a predisposition to fear people who do not belong to our group. But how to define this group is a cultural issue. In a society like ours in which groups are divided based on racial characteristics, ingrained prejudices are a breeding ground for racism. But a society in which the focus is away from racial characteristics can turn into a society free of racism.

This article previously appeared on Knack.be

This contribution is a paraphrased passage from Why We Are Afraid. Belkmans published Bram Verfleet’s book The Origin and Future of Fear.

Bram Verfleet is Senior Lecturer in Psychology at KU Leuven. His natural habitat is the laboratory, where he conducts a hunt for fear. He worked at the University of California and Harvard Medical School. Why are we afraid? It is his first book.

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