The Moral Psychology Handbook

Here are some highlights from the chapter on race in this 2010 book:

* evolutionary psychologists hold that people in many cultures and historical epochs have relied on skin color and other bodily features to classify their fellows, and have further believed that such classifications also group together people who share underlying biological commonalities.

* there is evidence that across cultures and historical epochs—e.g. in Classical Greece and in the Roman Empire (Isaac, 2004)—people have relied on classifications that are similar to modern racial categories in two central respects. First, these classifications are supposed to be based on phenotypic properties: members are supposed to belong to the same racial category because they share some phenotypic, i.e. morphological or behavioral, properties. Second, people assume or act as if racial categories map onto biological categories: members
who share the relevant phenotypic properties are assumed to share some important and distinctive set of underlying biological properties as well.

* The presence of these common themes across different cultures is just what an evolutionary psychologist would expect, since evolutionary psychologists view racial cognition as a by-product of a cognitive system shared by all normally developing humans. In contrast, because socialization accounts cannot explain why these core elements should recur across times and cultures, they are at best incomplete.

* children do not acquire the tendency to classify racially from their familial environments. If children were explicitly taught by their parents, or if they merely picked up the classifications their parents used even without being explicitly instructed in their use, one would expect children’s beliefs about races to be similar to their parents’ beliefs. However, this is not the case…

* 3- to 7-year-old preschoolers treat skin color differently from other properties. Unlike properties like body shape, for instance, preschoolers expect skin color to be constant over a lifetime and to be transmitted across
generations. By contrast, they believe that body shape can change across a lifetime and is not necessarily transmitted across generations (ibid.: 97–101).

These beliefs about racial properties reflect a kind of intuitive essentialism: racial properties are viewed as stable (racial properties do not change during one’s lifetime), intrinsic (racial properties are thought to be caused by one’s inner nature), innate (the development of racial properties does not depend much on one’s rearing environment), and inherited (parents transmit their racial properties to their children).

* Racial categorization develops early and reliably across cultures; it does not depend entirely on social learning; it is, in some respects, similar to commonsense biological classification. Thus racial categorization seems to be neither the product of socialization alone nor of the perceptual salience of skin color alone. It does not appear to result from a general tendency toward group prejudice, either. Rather, this body of evidence is best explained by the hypothesis that racial categorization results from a specialized, species-typical cognitive system that, even if it did not initially evolve to deal with racial categorization, has been recruited for this purpose.

* First, we are impressed by mounting evidence that race and racial bias can still have measurable and
important effects in real-world situations. In a field study by Bertrand and Mullainathan (2003), researchers responded to help-wanted ads in Boston and Chicago newspapers with a variety of fabricated resumes. Each resume was constructed around either a very black-sounding name (e.g. ‘‘Lakisha Washington’’ or ‘‘Jamal Jones’’) or a very white-sounding name (e.g. ‘‘Emily Walsh’’ or ‘‘Greg Baker’’). When the resumes were sent out to potential
employers, those bearing white names received an astonishing 50% more callbacks for interviews.

* Similar evidence of race and racial bias influencing real-world situations comes from a recent statistical analysis of officiating in NBA (National Basketball Association) games, which claims to find evidence of an ‘‘opposite race bias’’ (Price &Wolfers, ms). The study, which took into account data from the 12 seasons from 1991–2003, found evidence that white referees called slightly but significantly more fouls on black players than white players, as well as evidence of the converse: black referees called slightly but significantly more fouls on white players than on black players.

* The racial composition of teams and refereeing crews was revealed to have slight but systematic influence on other statistics as well, including players’ scoring, assists, steals, and turnovers. The study found that players experience a decrease in scoring, assists and steals, and an increase in turnovers when playing before officiating crews primarily composed of members of the opposite race.

* the last couple of decades have shown a significant decrease in the expression of explicit racist attitudes…

* alcohol consumption interferes with the capacity to intentionally control the expression of these biases.

John M. Doris writes the Introduction:

* In the academy, the study of morality has historically been a special province of philosophy, while the study of mental processes has, for the past century or so, largely been the province of psychology and allied sciences. At the same time, recent philosophy has been largely speculative or theoretical (despite the robust empirical interests of many canonical philosophers), while the methods of contemporary psychology have
characteristically been empirical or experimental (despite the robust theoretical interests of many canonical psychologists). The results have been uneven: philosophy has often been light on fact, and psychology has often been light on theory.

From elsewhere in the book:

* So…what follows from the evolution of morality…? Very little.

* Norm violators are likely to feel shame or guilt (depending on which emotion is emphasized in their culture). Victims of norm violations and third parties are likely to feel anger or disgust toward norm violators. These emotions motivate behavior: the anticipation of feeling ashamed and guilty motivates avoiding the violation of norms, shame and guilt motivate reparative behavior, and anger motivates punishment. Disgust causes third parties to distance themselves from norm violators, which results in the loss of cooperative opportunities for the norm violators. Anticipatory fear of shame or guilt often motivates norm compliance…

* Norms, either informal or formal, are ancient: the historical record has no trace of a society without norms. Furthermore, norms are universal (although the content of norms varies tremendously across cultures). Small-scale societies are typically regulated by informal norms, while large-scale societies are typically regulated by informal and formal norms. All known societies also have policing mechanisms that ensure people’s compliance with the prevalent norms…

* While people reason poorly about non normative matters, they are adept at reasoning about normative matters…

* The existence of a cognitive system that seems dedicated specifically to produce good reasoning about norms from an early age on provides some suggestive evidence that normative cognition is an adaptation. Generally, the functional specificity of a trait is (defeasible) evidence that it is an adaptation. Furthermore, the fact that a trait develops early and that its development is distinctive—it is independent from the development of other traits—suggests that natural selection acted on its developmental pathway. The early development of a psychological trait suggests that it is not acquired as a result of our domain-general learning capacity; the distinctive development of a psychological trait suggests that it is not acquired as a by-product of the acquisition of another psychological capacity (for further discussion, see Machery, forthcoming). Thus, evidence tentatively suggests not only that normative cognition is an evolved trait, but also that it is an adaptation.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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