Is Anti-Semitism Curable?

Allegations that British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn is encouraging anti-Semitic sentiment have renewed fears that Jews are once again becoming fair game for politicians. But the tensions in Britain also offer an opportunity to examine the evolution of bias and search for new antidotes to prejudice and xenophobia.Protesters in the United Kingdom are sounding the alarm over a perceived resurgence of anti-Semitism in politics. At the center of the crisis are revelations that Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party and an ardent critic of Israel, supported the artist of an anti-Semitic mural in 2012.

But as the British public accuses the left-wing party and its boss of encouraging anti-Jewish sentiment, an important psychological question needs to be addressed: Can we really blame Corbyn for failing to identify the controversial mural for what it was? The answer may indeed be yes, but the reasons are complicated.

Psychologists have long studied the effects of prejudice on the ability to identify bias in images. In 2008, a team of psychologists at Northeastern University discovered that people who are more prejudiced toward Jews are less accurate in discerning whether a photograph is of a Jewish or non-Jewish person. More broadly, the more accurate people believe they are at guessing elements of people’s identity – for example, their sexual orientation – the less accurate they actually are.

Not long ago, the opposite was true. In the decades immediately after World War II, when anti-Semitism was even more widespread than it is today, people with deeper prejudices were actually more accurate in identifying Jewish people in pictures. What changed?

One possible explanation is that today’s racism is more implicit, and that anti-Semitic biases operate at a subconscious level. People know that it is no longer socially acceptable to express racist views publicly, so they actively suppress those views. But what this suggests is that people may not be reliable reporters of what they really think; actions speak louder than words.

Another theory is that increasingly multicultural societies have altered their members’ perception. People who are less prejudiced toward Jewish people will likely have more Jewish friends, and this familiarity makes it easier to identify someone as Jewish.

This hypothesis is supported by the findings of a 2013 study that tested people’s ability to predict male sexual orientation by looking only at photographed faces. Strikingly, test subjects with gay male friends were significantly more accurate in predicting sexual preference than those unfamiliar with gay people. But, like the 2008 photo study of anti-Semitic views, the ability to predict sexual preference appears to operate in the subconscious.

Finally, a third theory suggests that racial bigots in past studies were better at identifying Jewish people simply because they selected “Jewish” for more faces. Perhaps fear led them to identify more Jews than were actually present.

Although the causes of anti-Semitism’s evolution remain unclear, psychologists contend that, today, people who are openly anti-Semitic may be more psychologically different from the rest of the population than they were in the past. Simply put, the “norm” is now to be more tolerant.

Given this, researchers are wondering whether treating or eliminating racial bias today would require something more akin to medical or psychological treatment, as opposed to political debate (which may have had a better chance of working in the past). Here, the science is encouraging. In 2012, researchers at the University of Oxford found that when white test subjects were administered propranolol, a beta blocker used to treat anxiety and hypertension, they experienced a temporary suspension of racial bias.

More study is needed to corroborate the findings; the drug had no measurable impact on religious, sexual, or other forms of prejudice. Nor did the Oxford experiment gauge whether a single dose of propranolol permanently abolished racial bias, or if regular doses could offer a more permanent “cure.” But other studies have confirmed that medication can alter a person’s racial prejudice.

For example, in 2011, psychologists at the University of Amsterdam who study Dutch attitudes toward Arab and German minorities discovered that the hormone oxytocin – which has been connected to feelings of trust and cooperation – can actually increase racial bias and xenophobia. The authors said the findings “call into question the view of oxytocin as an indiscriminate ‘love drug’ or ‘cuddle chemical,’” and raise new questions about how humans might manage “intergroup conflict and violence.”

Today, most people with racist views recognize that their ideas are outside the mainstream. But, as the recent uproar in Britain demonstrates, that does not mean bigotry has been erased. Rather, it means that modern racism often presents in subtler but equally powerful ways.

Doctors know that misprescribing or overprescribing antibiotic creates more resistant microbes. Treating modern racism is similar. The psychological nature of anti-Semitism is changing, and research suggests that as it does, bias will be driven even deeper underground. If the psychology and fear surrounding anti-Semitism have indeed shifted, then how we identify and address it must evolve as well. That does not mean slapping a Band-Aid on it while treating the symptoms; it means truly addressing the underlying causes of unconscious prejudice.

By Raj Persauda and Nicholas Morris via Project Syndicate

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