How ‘impermanence’ can help us all get along

Posted on October 8, 2013

We are born colorblind—literally. Newborn color vision is limited, lacking many of the visual distinctions that characterize mature sight. Soon enough, though, color takes over, figuratively as well as physiologically: We learn to see ourselves and others as parts of particular groups. Are we black or white? Male or female? What’s our religion, our language, our preference in music or food? Each time a child hears a description of a person or witnesses a human interaction, it contributes to the formation of her identity and sense of her role in the world.

What’s more, she begins to learn to prefer those things that are most similar to herself. By 3 months, a baby shows a marked bias towards faces of those who share her race. By 5 months she prefers the sound of her native language to any other—and the people who speak it to those who don’t. By age 4, these preferences translate into negative attitudes toward outgroup members—that is, those people who are not like the child and her family in some marked way.

Our preferences for people like us extend to all kinds of identities, whether they’re things we’re born with, like race, or a matter of circumstance, such as being a member of a certain profession. Even things as trivial as what kind of photographs you prefer or whether you’re made a member of a “green” or a “blue” group can swing the balance in someone’s favor or against. We even tend to encourage others to be more like us, if at all possible. They should check out our neighborhood, we tell them; they should try our favorite wine and agree about the political situation in Syria. At the benign end of the spectrum, our need for others to be like us comes through in our obsession with things like advice columns. On the grimmer end, it takes the form of religious crusades, racial bigotry, and ethnic cleansing.

Now, however, new research is suggesting that there may be a way to circumvent this predilection: The key is to change how we perceive the permanence of our own personal qualities. If we think an identity or a situation in our own lives is fixed and unchangeable, researchers at Stanford University and the University of Waterloo found, we are more inclined to negatively judge others who don’t share that identity. Intriguingly, however, this perception of permanence is open to adjustment. By reminding people that the categories we fall into may not be so fixed, we seem to be able to defuse the assumption that everyone would be happier if only they were like us.

Click on the link below to read the full article

Source material from Boston Globe