A Study in Humans
What Science Tells About How We Feel, Racism, & How Average People End Up Indifferent to the Unthinkable
Have you ever wondered how ordinary people stood by watching the genocide in World War II? As a child, I did. We are witnessing the answer now: Bias.
Average people can do horrifying things. This disturbing truth — that we may be capable of the unthinkable — offends us. We would rather not believe it.
“Not me,” we say.
Instead, we believe in Boogiemen, monstrous beings who do monstrous things, and all the while, we become the monster.
We live in a world where people do vile things, “bad” people can change, and where people cast themselves as the protagonist in the story of humankind. This is not a story, and there are no heroes or villains.
Science can tell us how it happens, how we can measure racism, and understand the ways it can work without our knowledge. The process begins on the individual level so we must also see what science can tell us about our own inner workings that make us all capable of the unthinkable.
How Do Opinions Form & What Do They Tell Us?
When people witness injustice like wrongful death at the hands of the police, outrage is not a given. Rather than whether something was justifiable, how a person felt about the victim decided their level of anger.
Onlookers who see the victim as “good” are more likely to support reparations and justice for the damages. People felt much more outrage if the person suffering was a “good” person, but this judgment did not automatically reflect facts. If someone has a prejudice against the victim, what happened would bother them less.
A study asked two random groups to take a survey about protesting. One group received a survey describing protestors as “Americans” and the other, “Black Americans.” If our impressions relate to a situation’s specifics as apologists often claim, then we would expect quiz results to stay the same.
That is not what happened.
White people supported protesting much more if they read protestors were “Americans” versus “Black Americans.” White participants supported “American” protestors 68% of the time, but that dropped to 48% when “Black” appeared in the survey. Critically, the study showed that minorities were not more reactive to race.
White participants were twice as responsive to race. The word “Black” caused White respondents to drop support for protestors by 20% (or a 30% change overall). The same addition only increased Black participants’ support by 9%.
The results run contrary to the idea that minorities “see racism everywhere.” Were that true, Black Americans should be more reactive, but they were not. Put another way, Black people were half as like as White people to change how they felt about protesting because of race.
Another study found that White participants often thought Black rioters were “trying to take advantage of the situation,” where Black participants saw inequality as the driving force. The logic playing out in the minds of Americans appeared in these studies.
If a bystander sees injustice happen to someone they judge as “bad,” they become less angry than if they saw a “good” person. When people see indefensible footage — videos that would provoke a visceral, physically sickened reaction if the victim looked like them — they reason away things that contradict their belief. They see this as evidence of logic and not bias.
It’s easier to believe the victims are lying than to believe it’s true and we stood by and did nothing. We don’t want that to be possible. “Good people don’t do that, and I’m a good person.”
A person may reason “there’s more than I see here,” or, “they’re probably a criminal,” even though nothing could justify what happened, and nothing says the victim is a criminal.
The assumption that dictates their response is that it could not possibly be what it looks like, even if it is.
We will bend over backward not to see it, too. Here lies the problem: The person who believes these events happen because Black Americans are “bad” does not see it as racist to say so because their flawed perception makes them believe they are impartial.
“Not me,” people say.
People believe themselves less biased than other people. We’re exceptional, better than others — like a protagonist in a fairy tale.
People who held fewer racist ideas than others responded defensively to the feedback that suggests they were more biased than average. Our self-image and how we see ourselves compared to others affect what we see as acceptable.
That means an inaccurate self-image may guide our behavior where we pardon ourselves as not bad comparatively. People who see themselves as unbiased people are unlikely to see their racism, even if you provide evidence. They lack the motivation to see their error. Society makes it such that there is little benefit in admitting we were wrong.
We only see a model of reality in our minds. It’s the reason optical illusions work, why we do not see a hole in our blind spot, how a conspiracy theory can win us over with little evidence. Our experience does not necessarily tell us about reality.
The process whereby we lose touch with reality begins with how we assess facts. While most people believe they are less biased, judging all information with the same rigor, they don’t. The very mechanism we rely on to stop us from unfair assumptions is itself biased.
If we like what we hear, we are likely to ask ourselves, “am I allowed to believe this without completely suspending reason?”
If we dislike it, we ask, “is there any reasonable reality where I can disregard this?”
We are not judging information by the same standard, an underpinning common among biases. The mind that seeks to preserve your role as the hero in this story and will go down swinging.
I understand why a person would cling to the belief that things are not as victims say. Not to believe that means accepting that grievous, indefensible injustice occurred — and you did nothing.