It’s not often I see researchers asking whether prejudice might have its advantages. Yet that’s exactly what a federal technology group in Switzerland, ETH Zurich, did — explore the question of whether prejudices might be rational under certain circumstances. The answer was no. In fact, they concluded the opposite, that prejudiced people are disadvantaged, lose opportunities, and learn nothing new.
Also unusual about this study, reported this spring in the world’s largest peer-reviewed science journal PLoS One, is that it was conducted with gamers. The researchers disregarded the social ethics of prejudice, focusing on the scientific method of game theory.
No, that’s not an oxymoron. Even a non-gamer like me can appreciate the logic of simplified success and loss in games. It’s an interesting approach: Do prejudgments create advantage, or disadvantage? Do they help you win, or lose? The researchers considered a possibility that some prejudgments, what might be called intuitive by those who hold them, may be rational. Testing it, they found the opposite; prejudgments are misleading. Prejudice loses.
In the simulation game, the study’s subjects played with other players/characters who behaved in a friendly or unfriendly manner with associated traits (e.g. gender, age, assets, religion, or cultural background). The game sometimes required collaboration to avoid losses. The idea was to see how experiences with one character led to prejudgments of later ones, and the way that affected choices in the game.
They found that prejudices formed quickly and early sometimes led to initial points, but also led to player failures later in the game. When subject players got to know characters and collaborated with them, they consistently performed better. These players learned more about how to succeed at the game, and learned it faster.
As the ETH report concludes, prejudiced strategies may seem successful and rational for a short time. However, as those who employ them don’t learn from mistakes or adjust their behavior, in the long run they must yield to strategies that respond to others in a more differentiated way. Cooperation and collaboration paid better dividends than prejudgments and resistance to others.
“Figuratively speaking, if there are only five people on an island or the people on an island have known each other for a long time, prejudices are just plain useless,” explains study author Thomas Chadefaux.
Apparent player success or failure when prejudice was employed was also linked to time and complexity.
“Prejudices are — especially because they are formed quickly and easily — often convenient in the everyday world, but fail when the situation becomes more complicated,” concluded researcher Dirk Helbing. “While it is efficient to react to a single trait in the beginning, you must not stop learning new things in a complex world; otherwise, you miss many good opportunities.”
I might be the last person to suggest that wisdom can come from a game, even a scientific one. Yet the results of this study do suggest something else, that overcoming prejudices takes time and patience. Differentiated judgment — judging things with more complexity, individually, and being able to adapt behavior and reactions accordingly — increases with time and experience.
If we look with fresh eyes.
Sholeh Patrick is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.