“As far as our brains are concerned,” said David Pietraszewski, “political affiliation is viewed more like a membership in a gang or clique than as a dispassionate philosophical stance.” Pietraszewski was talking to UCSB’s The Current about a study he coauthored that found political affiliation is more influential than race when determining who might by an ally should a skirmish erupt.

The reason a human’s brain is wired this way is because in our primal existence, ideological differences between tribes could easily lead to conflict. While the study found that race was a factor when choosing an ally, its influence was greatly diminished and sometimes eliminated when political affiliation was known to the observers. According to the researchers, ignoring race was a subconscious act by the participants in the study.

Using a group of eight Republicans and Democrats, half black and white and of varying ages, participants were asked to identify members after a controlled discussion. They found that participants identified members more readily by their political views than by their race. Other factors in deciding who might be an ally were gender and age. But because gender and age can determine other outcomes, such as finding a mate or meal, the information is processed differently by our brains. This difference also caused gender and age to be highly considered when choosing an ally, regardless of political affiliation being known to the observer.

Even though the research suggests that humans may one day shed the burden of being ignoble savages, it does not imply it will be an easy task. The study found that perceived racial tensions can cause our subconscious minds to automatically associate skin color with common interests. It is not impossible to reshape these mental constructs, however. The study also found that through broad, unfettered cooperation,humans can change what Pietraszewski calls the “us versus them” mentality.

The research was performed at UCSB’s Center for Evolutionary Psychology, and the paper, published in the journal Cognition, was coauthored by Oliver Curry at Oxford University and Michael Petersen of Aarhus University.


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