UCSB Researchers Publish Findings in Online Scientific Journal PLOS ONE

UCSB researchers recently published a study on the relationship between racial categorization and peaceful cooperation in the academic journal PLOS ONE, with the paper’s findings suggesting that different groups of people — if cooperating peacefully — can be united across social and racial boundaries to form alliances.

The study, titled The Content of Our Cooperation, Not the Color of Our Skin: An Alliance Detection System Regulates Categorization by Coalition and Race, but Not Sex, was authored by former UCSB graduate student David Pietraszewski — who is now a postdoctoral scholar at Yale University — as well as UCSB anthropology professor John Tooby and psychology professor Leda Cosmides. The researchers examined how individuals form cooperative alliances and found that peaceful cooperation allows alliances to form, regardless of the racial makeup of the group.

Participants were asked to view a conversation between eight people and pay attention to what was said. After the conversation was over, participants were shown a series of photographs of the eight conversers and snippets from the conversation. They were then asked to match who said what; mistakes made by the participants were indicative of how they categorized the eight people they were asked to view.

Based on the results, Tooby, Cosmides and Pietraszewski proposed that human beings have evolved with an innate “alliance detection system,” which determines who is working together in a group in order to identify potential allies that might be needed in the future. They found that when common threats or potential projects arise that require cooperative action, the ethnicity of potential collaborators is not considered, thus indicating that race may not be as deeply entrenched in human psyche and decision-making as has been previously thought.

According to Cosmides, real-world scenarios will not necessarily provide visual information on someone’s alliances. Cosmides said race becomes less important if other factors play a part in how individuals assess alliances within groups of people.

“That’s how our mind treats race — as a cue to alliances. When the alliances seem to be predicted by other factors, your mind decreases the extent to which it retrieves people’s race,” Cosmides said. “It’s not that you’re not seeing it on their faces; it’s that when you’re asked who said what, and you’re trying to remember who said what. Your mind is not retrieving the racial categories.”

Pietraszewski said individuals are not necessarily “locked” into racist thought, but rather this thought is a product of concrete life experiences.

“If the mind attends to these physical features for social reasons, then you have the potential to change racial boundaries by changing social boundaries,” Pietraszewski said. “These results suggest that we are not locked into racial categorization and racism … they are product of specific, and addressable, social experiences.”

According to Tooby, evidence for the arbitrary nature of race can be found when examining children. He said that research has found that when children see a group of people, they do not see race as a relevant feature.

“Young children are often surprised when adults explain that there are different races on their favorite team. They don’t really understand that. The team is the coalition,” Tooby said. “And yet, their not-seeing-race doesn’t predict the team membership. They don’t see it. A friend of mine’s young son was really surprised to learn that Michael Jordan was black.”

According to Pietraszewski, the researchers exposed the study’s participants to situations that “cross-cut racial boundaries.” In these situations, participants categorized other people in a way that did not account for race.

“They began to abandon categorizing the people by their race, and instead, began to categorize them based on their cooperative social relationships,” Pietraszewski said. “This also tells us something fundamental about why the mind creates the experience of social category ‘race’. It demonstrates that there is not machinery or software in the mind for attending to race per se.”

Since the mind is not naturally programmed to consider race, Pietraszewski said the mind must think of physical features when noticing and considering race.

“[It is] because of social expectations that these physical features tend to predict patterns of interactions, association and the way people will treat one another,” Pietraszewski said. “So when we show that these features no longer map onto these kinds of relationships, the implicit categorization of people by these features begins to go away.”


A version of this story appeared on page 4 of Thursday, February 13, 2014’s print edition of the Daily Nexus. A previous version of this article incorrectly paraphrased a quote by Pietraszewski to say “racism is not ‘nature’ but rather ‘nurture’: in other words, it is a result of social and cultural life experiences.” This is not what Pietraszewski meant by his quoted statement, and the article has been changed accordingly.