Excerpted and adapted from Born to Believe by Newberg and Waldman:
Prejudice is rooted in human nature. The human brain has a propensity to reject any belief that is not in accord with its own view. The brain’s natural functioning is to divide objects, people, and ideals into groups. The brain will tend to express a preference for one and a dislike for the other. In other words, the brain is naturally biased to reject others who do not embrace our beliefs.
Unfortunately, such biases are not limited to politics and sports. We assign such preferences and dislikes to people from different cultural, religious, and ethnic backgrounds. Hundreds of studies have confirmed the “in” group will always orchestrate scenarios—pass laws, distribute benefits, etc.—that are less than favorable for the “out” group.
This “us-versus-them” mentality exists even when the division is arbitrarily assigned. Systematic research by Henri Tajfel, showed that when individuals were randomly placed into different groups, they felt stronger about their own group and tended to feel negatively about other groups, even when issues of religion, sexual identity, and culture were factored out.
Thus, simply being a part of a group results in feelings of ill will towards other groups. The human origins for such beliefs most likely evolved from the defensive and aggressive behaviors we see when different groups of animals compete for control over territory, food, and mates. Thus we are biologically prone to divide people into groups, to categorize and stereotype them, and then evaluate them in preferential and prejudicial ways.
The “us-versus-them” mentality can be easily converted into racism. This was dramatically demonstrated in a well-known experiment conducted by an elementary school teacher named Jane Elliott. One day, she told her students that blue-eyed children were smarter, nicer, and neater than those with brown eyes. She praised the blue-eyed children and gave them special privileges while ridiculing the others. Within hours, the blue-eyed children began to torment those with brown eyes. The next day, the teacher reversed the roles, praising the brown-eyed children and demeaning the others. In both situations, academic performance declined in the group that was being discriminated against.
This topic becomes more complicated when people try to associate racism, which is a hostile form of discrimination, with biological and genetic tendencies. Brain scan studies have shown that the amygdala—the neural part of our emotional system that registers fear—does react when we first observe a person from a different ethnic background. But we can develop the ability to temper hostile reactions. Thus, we can teach our children not to automatically reject others based upon their race, sex, or economic position. One technique that is used in schools to interrupt oppositional beliefs is called the jigsaw classroom experience: when children are placed in groups with other minorities, and given a project that requires everyone’s assistance, prejudices fall away, hostility fades, and group cooperation flourishes.
When faced with any belief that conflicts with our own, it takes additional effort and time to override these biologically-based cognitive biases. By doing so, we can become more open-minded to those with different beliefs. We can even reach a point where we realize that notions such as good and evil are largely arbitrary and relative to many conditions of which we are often unaware. History, of course, reminds us how hard it is to maintain open-minded beliefs.
Eliminating bias is healthy for your brain, and most forms of spiritual practice and mindfulness will stimulate the circuits involved in empathy, compassion, and fairness. Try applying this lovingkindness meditation toward someone who currently irritates you or violates your moral beliefs: "May you be filled with love and peace."