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Prejudice psychology? Israeli study finds brain inflates numbers in minority groups

Subjects consistently overestimated minority numbers in series of tests run by Hebrew University psychologists; they believe the mind trick may fuel intolerance

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

Illustrative image: A screen with different faces, like those used in Hebrew University research which concluded that people tend to over-estimate the presence of minorities. (iStock via Getty Images)
Illustrative image: A screen with different faces, like those used in Hebrew University research which concluded that people tend to over-estimate the presence of minorities. (iStock via Getty Images)

The human brain appears programmed to overestimate the size of minority groups around it, potentially fueling prejudice and holding back programs to encourage diversity, according to Israeli researchers.

Hebrew University psychologists say they identified a “diversity illusion” when asking Israelis and Americans to assess the size of minorities — Arabs and African Americans respectively. In both cases, people believed there were far more people from the minority than there actually were.

The researchers attributed this to the mind’s tendency to focus on and amplify that which is out of the ordinary.

“Our minds are tuned to the uncommon or unexpected in our environment. In most environments, members of minority groups are just that — uncommon. Therefore, the cognitive system is tuned to spotting their presence,” the researchers wrote in their study,  peer-reviewed and published in PNAS, the journal of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The study reports several experiments, including one in which students at Hebrew University were asked to estimate what percentage of the student body is Arab. Jewish students estimated 31% and Arab students estimated 35%. In fact, just 12% of students are Arab.

In another experiment, American participants viewed a grid of 100 student faces, with 25% of African American faces randomly scattered among white ones. Both white and African American participants overestimated the percentage of African American faces, at 40% of the total.

Illustrative image: Arab and Jewish students at Hebrew University. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“Our results indicate that individuals from minority groups are salient in perception, memory, and visual awareness. As a result, we consistently overestimate their presence — leading to an illusion of diversity: the environment seems to be more diverse than it actually is, decreasing our support for diversity-promoting measures,” the researchers said.

Normally people are relatively accurate in experiments that involve estimating percentages, Rasha Kardosh, the postdoctoral student who instituted the research, told The Times of Israel.

Dr. Rasha Kardosh. (Courtesy of Hebrew University)

She explained that various mechanisms and controls were included to confirm that the results reflected difficulty in accurately estimating the size of minorities specifically, and not a general inability to estimate numbers.

“At first, we couldn’t believe the results, so we ran the same experiment several times,” said Kardosh, a social psychologist. “But it actually makes sense. Think about when you walk down the street — you notice what is unusual in your surroundings, or unlike the rest of the surroundings, much more than you notice the things you expect to see.”

Kardosh said that for people who dislike a particular minority, this phenomenon is likely to fuel their prejudice as they have an inflated sense of how numerous it is.

“The illusion also seems to harm efforts to build a more equitable society, because it makes people feel that there’s not much need for policies for promoting diversity,” she said. “If people assume there are more people from a minority at a university, for example, they think there’s less need for pro-diversity policies than there actually is.”

Her academic advisor Professor Ran Hassin said he believes the study will encourage initiatives to monitor and promote diversity, as it shows that peoples’ general impressions are a blunt tool for judging the diversity of society. “I believe that our work has immediate and real-life implications,” he commented.

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