The True Roots of Prejudice...

Fifty years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., one of the most important figures in the struggle for Civil Rights in the U.S., took part in the March on Washington in 1963, where King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech with which he would become so closely associated, and widely considered to be one of the best and most important speeches of the 20th century.

To honor this man and his legacy, I thought it might be useful to discuss racism, or more broadly, the phenomenon that powers it, bigotry.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.


To many people, it seems quite obvious that “intolerance toward those who are different, or who hold different views” is learned. After all, schoolchildren of different races can be seen all over the world playing together in harmony and getting along. They even wrote a song about it for the musical “South Pacific” called “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught,” in which we are told, “You've got to be taught to hate and fear. You've got to be taught from year to year. It's got to be drummed in your dear little ear. You've got to be carefully taught.”

South Pacific (1958)

As is often the case, however, the scientific evidence reveals a more complex picture than those lyrics would suggest. For decades, researchers have been showing the wide variability and malleable nature of human bigotry. With early training, people can be taught to think of just about any group as inferior to their own, whether their differences are based in gender, national origin, hair color, accent/dialect, religion, sexual orientation, or any of the myriad ways that we vary. More recently, however, scientists have begun to uncover evidence that the roots of our bias may be more biological than previously thought. This research suggests that, rather than being purely learned, human bigotry may be inherent.
Socialization may teach us which groups to hate, but biology ensures that we are ready made for prejudice.


One of the most impressive attempts to demonstrate the learned nature of bias took place in the mid-1960s in a rural grade school in Riceville, Iowa. In the exercise, third-grade teacher Jane Elliott, motivated by the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., used eye color to separate her all-White class, many of whom, she discovered, had no real-life experiences with people of different races, and who held extremely prejudiced beliefs about Black people and Native Americans.

Jane Elliott

Jane Elliott

In the first part of the exercise, Elliott designated the blue-eyed children as a superior group. She informed the class that people with blue eyes are better than those with brown eyes, and went about discussing various examples of this “fact,” such as an instance in which one young boy’s father had reportedly kicked him, and how his eye color should have predicted that behavior.

She then instructed the class that people with blue eyes were not to be seen playing on the playground with those who had brown eyes. Furthermore, those with blue eyes would receive 5 minutes of extra recess, and were the only ones allowed to return for seconds at lunchtime. Blue-eyed students could also use the drinking fountain, but those with brown eyes were to use paper cups to drink their water from the fountain. In the second week of the exercise, the roles were reversed. This time, those with brown eyes were told that they were superior, and the discriminatory rules were applied only to those with blue eyes, while the perks were given to the brown-eyed children. Each of these rules was meant to allow the children to feel second-class citizenship firsthand, and perhaps to gain insight into what it meant to be discriminated against unfairly. The results of the exercise were much more impactful, however.

Elliott described that she saw what had been polite, well mannered, loving children quickly turn into spiteful, hate-filled little monsters in the span of less than a week. Children who had been fast friends for years suddenly turned on each other, even when Elliott wasn’t present, and fights soon broke out between some of the boys after taunting reached a breaking point. Elliott also noted that the children’s learning was being affected. Math and reading scores during the two week period correlated with ingroup/outgroup assignment, with those in the group being discriminated against performing worse each time. She surmised that the pressures and distraction associated with discrimination were bearing down on the children, causing them to perform worse.

(The Frontline documentary of Elliott’s famous study entitled “A Class Divided” can be seen HERE .)


Although Jane Elliott’s famous exercise is often put forward as ironclad proof that all discrimination is unnatural and learned, other scientists, such Dr. Karen Wynn at Yale University’s “Infant Cognition Center,”, are beginning to reveal the biological roots of bigotry. Her studies have shown that infants as early as 6 months of age show not only the foundations of morality, but also the vestiges of the darker parts of humanity, such as bigotry.

In some of her studies, Wynn’s colleagues put on a puppet show for babies. In it, Puppet A (wearing a colored shirt) struggles to open a box. Along comes Puppet B (wearing a different colored shirt) who helps open the box. In a second puppet show, Puppet A is trying again to get the box open, and along comes Puppet C (in a differently colored shirt) who slams the box shut. The babies are then presented with Puppet B and Puppet C by a blind assistant (one who doesn’t know which puppet was nice, and which was mean), and are given the chance to choose (i.e., take, hold, play with) either puppet. Results show that the babies are far more likely to reach out for Puppet B (the nice/helpful puppet), suggesting that even young infants have an innate sense of morality.

More surprising, perhaps, are the results of a second part of the study. In this one, Wynn first presents two bowls of treats to each infant, either Cheerios cereal or Graham crackers. Each infant’s choice is recorded, and used in the next phase of the The Choicestudy. A puppet is then shown to the baby, clearly eating and enjoying the same treat that baby chose (Sameness Puppet) or eating and enjoying the treat that the baby didn’t like (Difference Puppet). And again, the baby is given the opportunity to choose which puppet to play with. Nearly 100% of the time, babies (who hadn’t had time to be socialized into bigotry) chose to play with the Sameness Puppet…in other words, they prefer those who share even seemingly meaningless characteristics with them.

The truly disturbing part of Wynn’s studies is one in which babies watch a puppet being abused. After the Sameness/Difference Puppets have been established, babies watch a puppet show in which the Difference Puppet is attempting to open a box. Another puppet comes along and SLAMS the box shut, preventing the Difference Puppet from opening it. Another puppet comes along later, and helps the Difference Puppet to get the box open. Given a choice, in this case, between a helpful puppet (who helped someone different) and a mean puppet (who was mean to someone different), babies almost always choose the MEAN puppet. In other words, Wynn’s research suggests that we may have an inherent desire to see people different from us treated badly.

(The "60 Minutes" segment about Dr. Karen Wynn's work can be seen HERE)


The good news is that, like most inherent human behaviors such as greed, lust, revenge, etc., we can be “carefully taught” not to act upon them. But in order to gain control over our bigotry, whether it be sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, or any of the other forms of hatred humans engage in on a daily basis, we need to take an honest, and perhaps sobering, look at the research, and be able to accept that at least part of this tendency may come from Mother Nature.