In his 1790 letter to the Jewish congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, George Washington endowed the idyllic countryside of eighteenth-century America with biblical resonances: “May the Children of the Stock of Abraham”—by which he meant Jewish people—“who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”

More than 220 years later, we know that we have often fallen far short of Washington’s vision. Indeed, episodes in American history remind us that humans can be exceedingly cruel. Washington’s pastoral scene is a powerful metaphor: An allusion to trees might evoke images of peace—but in another context, it can summon images of lynchings of African Americans. These dueling images are especially painful in light of the fact that Washington himself owned slaves.

"I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality." --Martin Luther King Jr.

We see human cruelty particularly when people face others whom they consider essentially different from themselves. The spirit of inclusiveness and goodwill found in Washington’s letter has often competed with fears and prejudices in our history. How can we reconcile the tension between murderous bigotry and deep compassion—and how can we encourage more of the latter?

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We find some answers to the second question in cutting-edge research into psychology and neuroscience. This work suggests that fear of the out-group—those who don’t seem like us, perhaps because they don’t look, talk, or worship as we do—is deeply ingrained in the human psyche, evident in some of the most rapid and primal ways our brains and bodies operate.

When confronted with out-group members, for example, our brain activity spikes in regions that neuroscience has associated with fear and disgust, and our bodies begin to secrete the hormone cortisol, which has been linked to stress and the “fight or flight” response. In other words, some of our reactions to members of the out-group are outside of our conscious control.

But that’s only half the story.

Research also suggests that our prejudices are quite malleable—the membership of our in-groups (and out-groups) can change. Psychological science has made tremendous strides in uncovering the factors that encourage a sense of inclusion, including why we are willing to push back against bigotry and hatred. Although we naturally react more favorably toward people we see as clearly in our in-group, the boundaries of that group are permeable. Washington’s letter, written at a historic moment when Jews were gaining acceptance in American society, is a classic example of how prejudices can be changed over time. It also reveals the difference that leadership can make in the battle against bigotry.

Confronting the prejudiced brain

Recent studies using sophisticated brain imaging techniques have offered an unprecedented glimpse into the psychology of prejudice, and the results aren’t always pretty.

In research by Princeton psychology professor Susan Fiske, for instance, white study participants were shown photographs of white and black faces while a functional magnetic resonance imaging scanner captured their brain activity. When asked a seemingly harmless question about the age of the face shown, participants’ brain activity spiked in a region known as the amygdala, which is involved in the fear response—it lights up when we encounter threats.

This essay originally appeared as a chapter in Washington's Rebuke to Bigotry: Reflections On Our First President’s Famous 1790 Letter To the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, an anthology published by Facing History and Ourselves.

Yet when participants were asked to guess the favorite vegetable of each individual pictured, amygdala activity was no more stimulated by black faces than it was by white ones.

In other words, when the study participants had to group people into a social category—even if it was by age rather than race—their brains reacted more negatively to black faces than to white faces. But when they were encouraged to see everyone as individuals with their own tastes and feelings—tastes and feelings just like the ones they have themselves—their reactions to black faces and white faces didn’t differ. Their fear dissolved as they no longer saw the black faces as others.

This research shows how it’s possible to shift perceptions of in-groups and out-groups in a lab. But how do we do this in real life?

One of social psychology’s most influential theories about incorporating others into the in-group is called the contact hypothesis. Formulated by Harvard social psychologist Gordon Allport in the 1940s, the theory itself is straightforward: Increasing exposure to out-group members will improve attitudes toward that group and decrease prejudice and stereotyping.

By no means an idealist, Allport recognized that contact between groups can also devolve into conflict and further reinforce negative attitudes. In fact, he argued that contact would bring positive results only when four specific conditions were in place for the groups involved:

  • the support of legitimate authorities;
  • common goals;
  • a sense of interdependency that provides an incentive to cooperate; and
  • a sense of having of equal status.

How leadership affects prejudice

© Gilbert Stuart Portrait of George Washington

When dealing with intergroup dichotomies—think “us” versus “them”—group leaders have what researchers call an “outsize effect” on public opinion. This happens because there is often a range of possible attitudes we can adopt toward out-group members—any given social identity may be disdained by one set of people and glorified by another (even though, once formed, such attitudes may feel unchangingly “righteous” and “true” before new information appears). In the presence of such ambiguity, people naturally take their cues from those in leadership positions.

In a famous experiment that supports this understanding of human behavior, Stanley Milgram demonstrated that study participants who were asked to give what they assumed were potentially deadly shocks to another person were especially likely to comply when the authority in charge (an experimenter in a white lab coat) instructed them to do so. Even when they appeared deeply distraught about their own actions, they proceeded to deliver the shocks, particularly when the experimenter urged them to continue.

Such obedience to authority comes in part from people’s tendency to look to authority figures for help when situations are unfamiliar, threatening, or uncommon. These adjectives describe many encounters with out-group members.

But research also strongly suggests that authority figures can encourage positive behaviors, not just negative ones. One extensive analysis, conducted by Dartmouth business school professor David Sally, looked at dozens of studies in which participants could either cooperate or compete with each other. Sally found that when an authority figure—again, an experimenter running the study—instructed the participants to cooperate, they were roughly 35 percent more likely to work together than when they got no instruction at all, even though their potential gains from behaving selfishly hadn’t changed.

As the first American president, Washington opposed anti-Semitism—and our current president provides a parallel example: Barack Obama’s public support of gay marriage rights on May 9, 2012. “Regardless of how old you are, it’s the first time you have ever seen a president of the United States look into a camera and say that a gay person should be treated equally under the law,” said Chad Griffin, incoming president of the Human Rights Campaign, at the time, “The message that that sends, to a young gay or transgender person struggling to come out, is life changing.”

Obama’s support of civil rights for gay couples was unlikely to change the hearts and minds of people whose attitudes were already hardened. National data suggest that while public opinion has become more positive, members of sexual minority groups still evoke ambivalent feelings, neither antipathy nor support. It was here that Obama’s unambiguous advocacy of civil liberties for gay couples might have had great impact.

Fostering cross-group cooperation

Leaders can go a long way in improving attitudes toward out-groups, setting the stage for Allport’s next two conditions: common goals and interdependence.

A recent analysis of more than 500 studies found that the most effective setting for reducing intergroup prejudice is actually the workplace, where people’s fates are often intertwined—consider team members working on a presentation for their board of directors, or officemates working together to develop a new product. Ensuring equal status among workers and, as we’ve seen, providing inspiring leadership—the other two criteria Allport identified—contribute to harmony when a workforce is made up of a variety of groups.

What’s more, when diverse groups enjoy equal status and support from authorities, share common goals, and feel interdependent (e.g., on a group project), that can foster a self-perpetuating process of inclusiveness. As people to get to know one another, they become more human in each other’s eyes, more prepared to like one another. In short, inclusive contact encourages people to become friends, and friendship has been found to be one of the ways, possibly the most powerful and effective way, to melt intergroup barriers and reduce bigotry.

In studies conducted by one of us (Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton), students of different ethnic groups were encouraged to become friends. After they formed friendships, members of both groups experienced less anxiety when they contemplated future interactions with other people from their new friends’ groups, and they showed a greater propensity to reach out across group boundaries.

The effects of cross-group friendship are so powerful, in fact, that their impact on prejudice is contagious. Research by Steve Wright and colleagues shows that if someone learns that a friend of hers has a cross-race friend, her own prejudices are likely to decrease. This “indirect friendship phenomenon” is also found when previously all-white neighborhoods and housing projects are integrated: Researchers have seen racial attitudes improve even among whites who had no direct contact with their black neighbors.

Toward equal status

Present Barack Obama © Pete Souza, The Obama-Biden Transition Project

Examples from America’s past also show that promoting equal status helps reduce prejudice. Beyond the obvious purpose of deterring explicit forms of bigotry, laws in our history guaranteeing equality have an important symbolic purpose, showing that the nation’s leadership stands behind cross-group contact—for evidence of this, look no further than the Supreme Court’s rejection of the doctrine of “separate but equal.”

Plus, research shows that one of the most effective ways to change people’s behavior and attitudes is to tie their fortunes to a given social issue (e.g., through legislation). So if, for instance, business owners know that discriminating against gay people will incur legal penalties or consumer boycotts that might hurt their bottom line, their social views will gradually catch up to the legal realities.

We know that achieving equal status for all Americans has been a difficult journey, begun before Washington’s time and continuing today. Not every group’s progress toward equality has advanced at the same rate. Of course, there’s the obvious irony that Washington wrote of giving “bigotry no sanction” while he and many others owned slaves. Today, while many previously disadvantaged groups now enjoy greater protections and liberties under the law, gay couples have only recently been allowed to enjoy the same marital rights as heterosexual couples (and only in certain states, at that), women still struggle for equal pay, and some religious minorities still face bigotry and violence.

Yet our history suggests that the struggles of gay couples, women, and religious minorities are not in vain, from the Emancipation Proclamation and the Fourteenth Amendment to Brown v. Board of Education and the Civil Rights Act to the United States Supreme Court’s decision invalidating the Defense of Marriage Act.

And social psychology suggests that we can make further strides against prejudice by reshaping how groups connect. From the attitudes that our leaders display to the laws that govern the land to the friendships that characterize our social circles, promoting contact between members of different groups has the potential to move us from numerical diversity, in which people merely coexist, to relational diversity, in which people from different groups relate to one another as human beings. We have reason to anticipate that Washington’s commitment to giving “bigotry no sanction” will, at some point, become a reality for all.

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