Despite all the current hoopla surrounding American police, racial profiling, no-fault shootings, etc., researchers have come to a surprisingly simple realization about prejudice—it’s a habit. A learning loop. A tiny bit of ingrained and automatized information. Nothing more, nothing less.
Put differently, our brain is a giant pattern recognition system. And one of the first patterns that brain hunts for is similarity. When we see something new, the first question the brain asks is: Us or Them? Is this thing like me or unlike me.
This is straightforward Darwinian logic. From an evolutionary perspective, if this thing is like me than I might want to investigate further because I might want to have sex with it. If it’s unlike me, then I might want to run away from it or, perhaps—depending on hunger levels and weapons available—I might want to eat it.
Couple this very basic pattern matching capability with a social species like our own and you very quickly get in group/out group effects. These people are like me; these people are not. This is my tribe. That is NOT my tribe. In other words, pattern matching at scale is what creates the habit of prejudice.
This is something of an uncomfortable idea. It means that Martin Luther King was marching against a habit. It means that when Adolph Hitler killed six million Jews, he was exploiting a habit. And, conversely, it means that the reason much of America is applauding Bruce Jenner’s decision to become Caitlyn Jenner is because, well, society has broken a habit.
But if you can accept that prejudice is a habit, well, that’s where things start to get really interesting. Sure, it doesn’t seem like we know how to stop racism, sexism, classism, ageism and all the rest, but we definitely know how to break habits.
And create new habits. In fact, thanks to researchers at Northwestern, if we want to change our habits of prejudice—all that’s really needed is a little bit of technology and a little bit of sleep.
Welcome to psychology’s latest frontier: counter-stereotype training.
Counter-stereotype training grew out of research into sleep and memory. Over the past decade, scientists have found they could boost learning with sound—a process known as targeted memory reactivation.
A typical targeted memory reactivation experiment works like this: study participants are asked to learn a novel skill—like how to knit. During their study period—whebran they’re trying to learn to knit—a very distinct sound is played. Following the study period, participants take a nap. If researchers replay the same sound during sleep, learning is significantly enhanced.
While knitting is a motor skill (and knowing how to knit is what happens when our fingers automatize needle movements i.e., the motions become habits)— as Northwestern psychologist Ken Paller recently discovered—this same process can be used to overwrite social biases.
In a recent study, Paller put participants through two training protocols—the first aimed at racial bias, the other at gender bias.
Using computers, participants heard sounds and saw faces and words. The words ran counter to stereotype. Women’s faces, for example, were paired with words associated with math and science (the program was aimed at the pervasive gender bias that men are better than women in math and science). For the racial experiment, black faces were paired with pleasant words.
Following this training, subjects went to bed. While they slept, the same tones were played. And when they woke up, their biases had greatly diminished. And the effect persisted. A week later, their biases were still lower.
The fact that this effect persisted a week later is surprising. Habits like prejudice take a while to from. They arise from long term socialization and, often, mass media reinforcement. The idea that they can be overwritten in one training session, with nothing more than sounds, pictures, and sleep, is significant.
So let’s play this significance out a little farther.
Consider that TV is the perfect delivery method for counter-stereotype information. A show like Bones—built around a top-notch female scientist (a counter-stereotype)—could easily contain five or six different lessons about women triumphing in math and science. In the soundtrack, unique tones could be paired with the lessons. It doesn’t take much—a sleep monitor (an app downloadable on any phone) and a music player (free on any phone)—to create a device that plays the same sounds while you sleep. In other words, counter-stereotype training is completely scalable. We can, right now today, tackle prejudice at a nationwide level using a nap and a smart phone.
Brave new world, indeed.
Steven Kotler is the director of research for the Flow Genome Project and best-selling author of Abundance, The Rise of Superman, and BOLD. His latest book is Tomorrowland: Our Journey From Science Fiction to Science Fact.