Monday, 30 March 2015

UKIP and psychology of racism.

That UKIP voters dislike immigration is a banal truism. That UKIP voters have little personal experience of immigration, however, is more surprising. A recent DEMOS report showed a strong correlation between relatively white homogenous areas and burgeoning UKIP support. A weaker, though still significant, correlation was also shown between areas of low unemployment and high UKIP support illustrating that the 'they took our jobs' theory of electoral popularity some (not least the supporters themselves) have identified is also less than convincing.

An averagely thoughtful liberal cosmopolitan could draw the fairly simple conclusion that, whereas living in a diverse community like London tends to make one more open minded to sharing public space with the capital's rainbow of immigrants, the insular life of homogenous South Thanet (96% white British) serves only to reinforce the sense of Us and Them and so heighten intolerance of immigrant outsiders. However, if one was being less charitable, as those on the left who view Farage and his clan as nothing short of satanic seem to be, one could simply accuse UKIPers of gross bigotry and racism, chuck a few eggs at Farage's face and feel thoroughly pleased with oneself for a job well done.

Now, I readily concede that the UKIP leader does have one of those faces that cries out for corporal punishment. And, even on their own terms, the party's policies are often deplorable when not merely incoherent. But seeing the bile being vented on social media by self-righteous 'activists' whose own smug visages seem no less deserving of an encounter with a blunt object, perhaps a little moderate corrective is in order.

I happen to be reading the developmental psychologist Paul Bloom's book, Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil, and found his chapter on 'Others' - as in, evil immigrants, filthy foreigners, etc - instructive. The seeds of racism, Bloom argues, run deep and start to sprout early, but the picture isn't as simple, or as bleak, as it first appears.  To start with, babies probably aren't natural born racists at all; they simply prefer the familiar, regardless of race. But that's not the only reason to doubt the veracity of the notion that racism a naturally occurring inevitability.

Evidence suggests that as adults we tend to encode three pieces of information about a new person: age, sex, and race. Intuitively this makes sense. But, as psychologists Kurzban, Tooby, and Cosmides pointed out in an influential paper, if one considers the circumstances under which these kinds of psychological habits formed, the race component of that triad starts to look a bit odd. After all, our ancestors would have had no contact with anyone belonging to what we call a 'different race' so why do we fixate on it now? As Bloom tells it, "race matters only insofar as it piggybacks on coalition".

Coalition refers to the simple practice of breaking the world into Us and Them by whatever means available, something that would have been invaluable in the violent localised inter-community conflicts that characterised early humanity. To test their hypothesis, Kurzban et al used a method known as the memory-confusion paradigm, which Bloom describes as follows:

"They gave people a series of pictures of people's faces, each with a sentence attributed to that person. Later, they asked participants to recall who said what. Given enough picture/sentence pairs, participants inevitably make mistakes, and those mistakes reveal what characteristics we naturally encode as meaningful. If one hears something from a young Asian woman and later forgets the source, it is more likely we'll attribute it to a young Asian woman (or another young person, or woman, or Asian) than to an elderly Hispanic man."

But Kurzban's study contained a twist. They used pictures and statements from an equal number of black and white people, but then randomly assigned them distinctively coloured jumpers. When they did this, the mistakes participants made were far more likely to be based on jumper colour than race.

Further evidence for the non-universality of racism can be found in research with children by McGlothlin and Killen. They designed a study using images of ambiguous moral situations containing an ethnically mixed cast and asked white children between the age of six and nine to describe what they saw. In some cases, the children displayed racial prejudice in how they analysed and recounted the scene, but only if they'd been to all-white schools. This supports what's known as the 'contact hypothesis' - the notion that, under the right circumstances, social contact diminishes prejudice.

So, the evidence clearly shows that coalition forming and group loyalty are powerful social forces written into our DNA which can lead to intolerance and racism. But they don't have to. In this light, the UKIP voters so demonised by the left are largely victims of circumstance. They fear immigrants for their 'otherness', and for how they'll change their communities, but don't realise that through the process of exposure they'll almost certainly change their own attitudes regarding the Dreaded Other.

As for the protesters who spoiled poor Nigel and his family's pub lunch the other day, someone needs to tell them that their one-off flamboyant efforts were wasted. What they really need to do is shut up and move in next-door.