Are We Born Racist? A New Israeli Study Has Some Surprising Answers

Is racial discrimination innate or learned? Are humans programmed to prefer their own group over others? Prof. Gil Diesendruck of Bar-Ilan University’s Psychology Department and Gonda Brain Research Center tries to answer these questions.

Smadar Reisfeld
Smadar Reisfeld
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Smadar Reisfeld
Smadar Reisfeld

Chaim Gil, my father, 86 and a Holocaust survivor, sits in front of the television, his head in his hands. He has just watched a report on protests against illegal immigrants from Africa. The blue number etched on his left forearm stands out against his wrinkled skin. “How is it possible?” he mutters. “Jews who suffered so much from racism treating refugees who have fled here in just the same way. Don’t try to tell me that it’s justified because of the diseases they bring and their crime. That’s not the point. What about all those people who don’t want to rent apartments to Arabs? And how come ‘La Familia’ wants to keep Beitar pure forever? People are racist first of all and then they go and find justifications for it. Racism is the container and everyone fills it with his own content.”

Is this really so? Is racism − not necessarily in the context of race, but in the sense of discrimination against “the other” − innate in us? Or is it shaped by social, political and personal circumstances? And when does it begin? When do we start to categorize people in groups and to favor one group − our own − over others?

Prof. Gil Diesendruck, of Bar-Ilan University’s Psychology Department and Gonda Brain Research Center, says that it starts at a very young age, and that the roots of racism and discrimination toward those who are different from us is innate, and thus present in children and even infants. In an attempt to probe children’s minds and comprehend their social concepts, Diesendruck plays games with them, tells them stories and asks them questions, which reveal things that adults are adept at concealing.

“We told 4- and 5-year-olds a story about people who live someplace in the world and think that dogs and cats are the same kind of thing,” he reports. “We asked the kids if these people should be corrected and they said yes. Then we said that the same people also think that Jews and Arabs are of the same kind, and here too the children thought it was a mistake and that it was even more important to correct it. Because these are two groups that are even more different.”

More than dogs and cats?

“More than any other category. We asked about gender ‏(the people in the story think that women and men are the same‏), profession ‏(doctors and policemen‏) and race ‏(blacks and whites‏).

“The category that turned out to be most significant for sorting was ethnicity: Jews and Arabs are the most different from one another, as if these were different species altogether. In other words, young children already view the world as divided into different social categories, and they have an essentialist belief about them.They view these categories as something essential and not arbitrary. For them, social categories do not derive from historical or cultural divisions; they are natural, ‘real’ and exist in the world.

“For example, one of the characteristics of such a belief is the assumption that each group is homogeneous, and therefore one can draw certain inferences about a person based solely on which group he is a member of.”

Stereotyping, you mean.

“It’s even more basic than that, because the belief is also applied to unfamiliar characteristics. For instance, we showed children a drawing of an Arab boy and we said that he likes to play a game called Jimjam ‏(a made-up name‏). We also showed them a Jewish girl, and we said she likes to play a game called Tibbits ‏(another made-up name‏). When we showed them an Arab girl and asked what she likes to play with, most of the children inferred that she likes to play Jimjam. They deduced it on the basis of the ethnicity category rather than going by the gender category.”

They disregarded gender.

“Relative to ethnicity, gender was less significant, as was personality. ‏We presented a shy Arab boy playing Jimjam and an outgoing Jewish boy playing Tibbits, and we asked what would an outgoing Arab boy play with? [Also less significant were] social class ‏(rich versus poor‏) and religiosity ‏(religious versus secular‏). In other words: The children viewed the individuals that belonged to the same ethnicity as sharing greater similarity than individuals that shared the same gender, personality or social class.

“We also wanted to see whether the children think ethnic membership is determined by the environment or if it is inherited. We told them a story about a Jewish couple that has a baby, but since they work very hard and are busy, they give the baby to an Arab couple to care for. We asked them what they thought the baby would be when he grew up − Jew or Arab? Most of the children said he would be Jewish even though he was taken care of by Arabs. We told them similar stories in which the contrast between the biological and caretaking couples was different − e.g., the biological couple is rich and the caretaking couple is poor, or the first likes cats and the second likes dogs, etc. The characteristic that was viewed as the most biological, as the one that would stay with the baby even when raised by other parents, was ethnicity.”

The race factor

In other words, Israeli children perceive ethnicity as a fundamental characteristic: All members of the group have the same qualities, and this category is also thought to have a racial element: biological, inherited and unchangeable. Does the same hold true in other countries?

“All children in the world see human beings as belonging to different groups, and everywhere they view certain social categories in an essentialist way, i.e., as natural, homogeneous, hereditary and inalterable groups. But the degree of importance of each category varies according to the culture. In the United States, for example, the race factor is the most important, because this is something that is talked about a lot, and this has also been found to grow stronger with age; 10-year-olds ascribe more importance to it than 5-year-olds do.”

So the factors that contribute to categorization are basically cultural and environmental, and develop with age?

“The specific characteristics used as a basis for categorization depend on the culture and the environment, but the tendency to sort people into groups and this essentialist belief about them is something natural. Innate even. It’s something that quite surprised us, because you might think children are born without any social biases, and that they only develop this essentialist belief as a result of a certain kind of upbringing. But what we found was just the opposite: Children start out with this essentialist tendency, and only a particular kind of education can lead them to develop a different, more open attitude.”

How did you test this?

“We studied children aged 5, 8 and 12 from different educational systems: Jewish children who attended regular, ‘mainstream’ Jewish schools; Arab children in regular Arab schools, and Jewish and Arab children who studied together at bilingual schools that combine students and teachers from both ethnicities.

“We found that in all the groups, the 5-year-olds were equally essentialist, and to a high degree. That is, they all perceived the other ethnic group as very different, as homogeneous, and so on. As they got older, those who went to a regular school remained essentialist, but those who went to an integrated school with Arabs and Jews together, became less and less essentialist. The implication is that the environment doesn’t create essentialism; it’s there from the start. Environment and education only strengthen or temper it.”

So we’re born with the ability, the impulse even, to sort people into groups?

“It’s an evolutionary need, and therefore it’s an intuitive and universal trait. In the ancient world, but also today in certain situations, it was important for a person to be able to map and sort the people around him, to quickly define who is in my group − the in-group versus the other group, the out-group.

“This division has two complementary evolutionary advantages: On the one hand, defining the in-group creates cohesion among its members, cooperation and the possibility of achieving things as a group: finding food, staking out living space, and so on. At the same time, defining the out-group leads me to be alert and cautious toward its members who are competing with me for resources and may also threaten me.”

Which leads us to the subject of racism and discrimination, which is more than just a sorting of people into different groups. It’s the idea that my group is better than the others, and the actions that derive from this thinking: discrimination in favor of members of my group and against the others. When does this begin?

“This, too, has been observed in very young children. They favor their in-group over the out-group. Take this experiment, for example: We divided 3- and 4-year-olds into two groups − the ‘blue group’ and the ‘yellow group.’ Each member of the blue group watched a computer screen where the image of another child appeared. Sometimes we said the child on the screen also belonged to the blue group, and sometimes that he was a member of the yellow group. We gave the child watching the screen stickers and told him he could share them with the children who appeared on screen however he liked. The girls distributed the stickers to all the children equally, regardless of what group they belonged to, but the boys gave more stickers to members of their in-group − the blues − than to the members of the out-group − the yellows.

“Later on, we told the children that some of the children on the screen like the stickers and some really don’t like them, and then this happened: When the child on the screen belonged to the in-group, the boys and girls showed consideration for his preference: They gave a lot to the ones who liked stickers and only a few to the ones who didn’t. When the child was from the out-group, the girls didn’t take his preference into consideration − all were given the same number of stickers − while the boys discriminated much more strongly. If the child liked stickers they gave him just a few and if he didn’t like them, they gave him a lot. Not only were they inconsiderate toward the members of the out-group, they were ready to give up their own stickers in order to provoke them or hurt them.”

That’s amazing, and it also says that girls are less “group-oriented” than boys.

“Yes, you could say that, and it’s manifested in another interesting way, too. We told some of the children who took part in the study that the stickers they had belonged to the entire kindergarten, i.e., that they were a shared group resource. In these circumstances, the boys ‘saved’ them and didn’t give many away to the child on the screen − i.e., they preserved the group resources, while the girls ignored the group and were generous with the stickers.”

And in each case, the discrimination against members of the second group happened when the group membership was determined on a totally random, ad-hoc basis.

“This proves that categorizing into groups and discrimination on the basis of this categorization is an inherent trait. It was enough for us to tell the children that they were blues versus yellows to create an immediate rivalry. There was no connection to politics, social circumstances or their personal experience. Robert Kurzban, who worked with Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, some of the founders of ‘evolutionary psychology,’ argues that racism in the sense of discrimination on the basis of race is a wholly modern phenomenon. Ancient man lived in a world in which he only rarely, if ever, encountered people from another race and with an appearance much different from his own, so the human brain could not have evolved to distinguish between races. Thus, differentiation and discrimination among races is not something inherent in us. In fact, in studies that we’re conducting now in the lab, we’re seeing that infants do not distinguish between white people and black people any more than they do between people wearing blue and people wearing red. This reinforces the argument that the categorical distinctions children make really derive from cultural cues. What is built in to the brain is the ability to distinguish between who is in ‘my’ group, and therefore with me, and who isn’t in my group and therefore apparently against me. A person needs a marker, a hint, to help him rapidly track alliances, in order to know where he stands and how to act, and race is not necessarily the relevant characteristic. Often, other characteristics take precedence over the racial characteristic. The research by Kurzban, Cosmides and Tooby shows that membership in the same basketball team, for instance, can be more important than race as a determinant of in- and out-groups.”

Go tell that to Beitar Jerusalem soccer fans.

“In Israel, because of the history and the political situation, religious-ethnic affiliation is the characteristic that most strongly determines the ancient alliances Kurzban and his colleagues talked about. Therefore, you find people who have a problem with Chechen Muslims being in their group. As we’ve said, all children, and then adults, arrange the world into categories, but the information that’s absorbed from the culture determines the specific characteristics used in this sorting.”

In recent years, more and more studies have shown that children, even infants, have a basic, innate sense of justice. Your studies, however, show that even young children favor those who are similar to them and discriminate against those who are different from them. The sad conclusion seems to be that we are born with a basic sense of justice, but that it’s directed only at those who are like us.

“I believe that children and infants can do both things. They have a concept of egalitarian and universal justice − for instance, they expect an equal division of resources. But at the same time, if you make them very aware of group membership, they will show preference for their in-group.”

Shared tastes

Just how intuitive the preference for the inner group is – or how primal the human attempt to distinguish between our allies and our enemies – can be seen from studies currently being done with babies. Yes, babies. They may not be able to speak like adults or run through mazes like mice, but their intentions and preferences can be detected through sophisticated, carefully analyzed experiments. One of the most interesting researchers in this field is Prof. Kiley Hamlin of the University of British Columbia, who began working in the field while doing her doctorate at Yale.

“We showed babies two bowls,” she says when interviewed by telephone. “One filled with green beans and the other with graham crackers. Believe it or not, more than a quarter of the babies chose the green beans, an interesting finding in itself, but that’s not the key thing, of course.

“The key thing is that after the baby chose one type of food, we put on a little puppet show for him with two puppets: one that liked the food he chose, and one that liked the other food better. When we let the babies choose one of the puppets, they chose the puppet that liked the same food they did.”

The puppet that is similar to them.

“Yes. They perceived which one shared the same taste as theirs and preferred it over the one they identified as different. In the next stage, we showed each baby the similar puppet (that shared the same taste) playing ball in the presence of two dog puppets. Every so often, the ball rolled toward one of the dogs. One dog was good: When the ball came to him, he rolled it back to the puppet. The second dog, the bad one, grabbed the ball and ran away. Then we let the baby choose between the dogs. He chose the good dog.”

Not surprising.

“But then an interesting thing happened. When the puppet that played with the ball was the dissimilar puppet ‏[the one with different taste‏], the babies actually favored the bad dog, the one that stole the ball from it.”

In other words − they favored the one that hurt the one who was different from them, in keeping with the notion that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

“Exactly. It appears that there’s an intuitive leaning, inborn or at least very primal, by which I favor those who are good to those I like because they are similar to me, and I also favor those who are bad to those I don’t like because they are different from me. In both cases, I favor those who share something in common with me, sympathy or lack of sympathy for someone, and this creates a connection between us. In other words, the baby’s positive attitude toward those who are similar to him and his negative attitude toward those who are dissimilar were so strong that they also determined the baby’s attitude toward a third party.

“An alternative explanation is that what we witnessed was simple schadenfreude − the feeling that the other, the one who is different, is deserving of punishment or should be poorly treated.”

How old were these babies?

“We tested 200 babies at two ages − 9 months and 14 months. With the 9-month-olds, 75 percent of them wanted the dog who was good to the similar puppet, but by age 14 months, 100 percent chose that puppet. In the experiment with the dissimilar puppet, 81 percent of the 9-month-olds chose the dog that was bad to it, and at 14 months, all of them chose it.”

In other words, the preference for that which is similar to you is a primal trait that evolves with age?

“There appears to be a maturing of the mechanism for identifying and favoring those similar to oneself, and this is apparently linked to the later development of the tendency to favor the group that is similar to me − the in-group − to the group of those who are dissimilar − the out-group. This favoring mechanism basically says that behavior is not good or bad per se; rather, it depends on the social context and my closeness to the involved parties.”

A “clan” approach.

“It’s even more complex than that. In a series of experiments we’re doing now, which haven’t yet been published, we’re seeing that the attitude of someone who is similar or dissimilar to me toward a third party whom I don’t know also affects my attitude toward that stranger.

“The experiment goes like this: We show a baby two brief plays. One time, the star of the show is the similar puppet ‏[who likes the same food he does] and one time it’s the dissimilar puppet. Together with the puppet, there are also two dogs with a ball on stage. One dog is treated well by the puppet. When he gives the puppet the ball, the puppet gives it back to him. The second dog receives poor treatment. The puppet grabs his ball and runs away. Then we let the baby choose between the dogs. Will it favor the one the puppet was nice to or the one the puppet was mean to?”

And the results?

“Well, it’s interesting that in these experiments, a single experience is not enough for the baby. He needs to see twice that the puppet is treating the strange dog nicely or not nicely in order to draw conclusions. And then, when the puppet he sees in the play is the one who is similar to him, the baby chooses the dog that was treated nicely.

“When it’s the puppet that’s different from him, he’ll actually prefer the dog that was treated poorly.”

Because if the puppet that’s different from me was unkind to the dog, it’s a sign that the dog might be worth something. So it seems that, contrary to what Jean-Jacques Rousseau said, a baby is not a “perfect idiot.”

“Definitely not. What we’ve observed here are rather complex social deductions. The basis for these deductions may be very incomplete and indirect, and not take details and nuances into account, but it enables me to situate myself automatically very quickly.”

It’s as if the baby is forming a coalition that includes him, those who are similar to him, those who receive good treatment from those who are similar to him, and those who receive bad treatment from those who are different from him.

“It is a coalition, one that can help me manage in conditions of war or when under threat by foreigners, and all of this − remember − is unconnected to color, race, ethnicity or gender, and does not derive from any newsworthy information the baby has received.

“The preferences are essentially based on a similarity in tastes. So our favoring of those who are like us over those who are different is biologically inherent, as are the conclusions we draw about the other that derives from this preference.”

And this is what gives rise to discrimination.

“Ironically, what enabled us to survive throughout evolution may be to our detriment today, as we also apply this strategy when it’s not relevant to survival. So it’s important to distinguish between situations of war and menace, and everyday life, where the use of such strategies creates injustice and discrimination.”

That’s easy to say. But if our natural tendency is to see ourselves as belonging to a privileged group that deserves priority, and if our intuitive outlook is that those who are different from us should be discriminated against, doesn’t this mean that chauvinism and discrimination are inevitable?

“This doesn’t mean that disliking those who are different is obligatory, any more than it is obligatory that men cheat on their wives or other such things that may have been common in our evolutionary history. Rather, it tells us something about the processes by which humans tend to divide up the world, and about how we might discourage such thinking in our children today, in a global society in which differences abound.

“For instance, parents and teachers might be careful to use language that discusses the levels at which we are all very similar to each other, at the same time as they note ‏(and celebrate‏) our differences.

“It is important to recognize that there are plenty of things that babies do ‏(for example, not using the toilet, not knowing calculus‏) that we encourage them to change through socialization, and which they do change, rarely if ever returning to their initial tendencies once the proper socialization has occurred.”

Prof. Diesendruck agrees that our primal instincts can be modified by education. “The less familiar a child is with the other group, the more he perceives the differences between the groups as deep and essential. In our studies with children attending integrated schools, daily contact enabled them to see that many seemingly ‘essential’ traits are not valid, and this happened within a year and a half. It’s important to talk about people as individuals: This is Mohammed, that’s Tomer and this is Anna. When you ascribe to a person a unique identity, the tendency to relate to him as a member of a group is diminished.”


Chaim Gil, the Holocaust survivor, admits that it’s not easy to maneuver between the ability to make intelligent generalizations based on experience and the tendency to make categorizations that border on racism. “But it is possible,” he says. “I overheard a conversation between my 9-year-old granddaughter and a friend her age. She told her friend that the day before, she went to Jerusalem with her family and Haredim attacked the car and hurled bags of water at it. Her friend was horrified and said, ‘Yes, Haredim are very violent people.’ My granddaughter said: ‘It’s not nice to make generalizations. Not all Haredim are violent.’ And her friend hastened to correct herself: ‘Sorry, I meant to say that there are a very few Haredim who are violent.’ To which the first girl replied: ‘No need to exaggerate. Not so few. There are plenty of violent Haredim ...’ I saw it as a heroic attempt, one that could set an example.”

ToddlersCredit: Corbis
Israeli children.Credit: Dror Artzi
Toddlers.Credit: Corbis



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