Xenophobia, For Men Only

Friday, January 23, 2009

By Wray Herbert

Very few people fear dandelions. Or violins or sparrows. Or even dangerous things—like Hummers. We may object to outsized automobiles on principle, but the mere sight of them doesn’t make us tremble and sweat and run away. On the other hand, even toddlers show an automatic and powerful fear of snakes, even harmless snakes.

That’s because of eons of evolution among both dangerous and benign things. There is probably no snake phobia programmed into our genetic code, but we do have an evolved mental readiness to be fearful of certain things in our world. Scientists can make you afraid of almost anything—even dandelions—but these conditioned fears rapidly vanish. The mind rejects silly phobias.

Does this cognitive readiness influence our relationships with other people? Psychologists have been studying this question, and the preliminary answer is yes. What they do is condition fears of a variety of other people in the laboratory, and see which fears disappear quickly and which persist. The ones that persist over time are deep-wired—and therefore a potential concern for human society.

Here’s an experiment of this kind, the work of Michigan State psychologist Carlos David Navarrete. Navarrete used mild shocks to make black and white men and women fearful of black and white men and women, each of each. That is, white men were conditioned to be fearful of black men and white men as well as black women and white women, and so forth with the others. Then he observed to see if these fears lasted or not.

The findings, reported in the February issue of the journal Psychological Science, were intriguing and unexpected. It’s known that people are more fearful of “out-groups”—that is, people who are different from them, and this fear of “the other” has been clearly demonstrated with race. But Navarrete found that volunteers’ most persistent fears were reserved for men—that is, male members of the out-group. So white men and women feared black men, and black men and women feared white men; all the other lab-induced fears, including any conditioned fear of women, evaporated into the air.

This is interesting in itself, but Navarrete ran a number of other tests to clarify the results. He tested for blatant racism (Example: "Generally, blacks are not as smart as whites”) and for more subtle, unconscious racism. He also gathered histories of the volunteers’ interracial contact—friendships, colleagues, romantic involvements. It was only these histories that mattered: Those with close relationships outside their own race had less persistent fears than did those with little interracial experience.

Why would gender influence these ingrained fears as much as race? It may be that men were more often the aggressors over evolutionary time, so that male faces became a potent cue for danger. So xenophobia is not an equal-opportunity emotion. Racially different men—and men only—are in this sense like snakes. All the rest are like dandelions and SUVs.

For more insights into human nature, visit “We’re Only Human” at www.psychologicalscience.org/onlyhuman. Selections from this blog also appear regularly in the magazine Scientific American Mind and at http://www.sciam.com/.

posted by Wray Herbert @ 11:45 AM


At 12:52 PM , Blogger AnnF said...

I suspect that while evolution may well have an influence on greater fears of men than of women, the media may well have something to do with it as well.

In news and in entertainment, male physical aggression is far more prevalent than female physical aggression and is usually depicted as more serious. I don't have data but I suspect that serious male physical aggression is depicted at least disproportionately to its incidence in real life.

Additionally, in sports, we tend to watch male sports players more often and in more physically aggressive sports (e.g. football, basketball, boxing, wrestling). Particularly in a time where a growing number of Americans are becoming too inactive or overweight to defend themselves from, say, a wet paper bag, if one's exposure to men of another race is images of somebody who could do one great physical harm and is physically "in your face," that could trigger associations of aggression and potential helplessness in the face of aggression.

At 5:07 PM , Blogger udigrudi said...

I don't see how racism is evolution. We should be more afraid of poisonous berries, poisonous frogs, or hot stoves.

Watch any child wander into a road (or by a stream or the ocean) and you'll soon see that we lack the instinct to avoid danger. That kind of behavior is learned.

Which is why an experiment like this is so unnerving. What if these, otherwise tolerant people, become bigots because of tests like this?

At 8:14 PM , Blogger scressley said...

Navarrete's experiment reminds me of John B. Watson's experiment with "Little Albert." Through conditioning, Watson made Albert afraid of white fluffy things. Like you said, the phobia of a white fluffy things is alot like that of a dandelion and can be easily erased.
But the question of why people fear men more rather than women seems easy.
In the past men were alwasy the protecters. And to be a good protecter a man has to be aggressive and scary and make other men, women and animals keep their distance from their family.
So when eventually, whether they be black or white, all men are scarier than women who are viewed as docile creatures who would never hurt you.