In “Unsafe,” Ayelet Pearl pointed out that neighborhood stereotypes are often unfounded. I mean, how often have you heard, “Hey man, stayin’ safe in Harlem?” To which you reply: “Columbia is by two theological seminaries and Manhattan School of Music. So yeah, the monks and the musicians are really scaring me.” (Great band name, btw.)
But there’s a larger point to be made. As Pearl mentions, crime has never been lower throughout the city. Yet, we still avoid certain neighborhoods and areas, even though there’s usually awesome things going on there.
I want to look a bit more into why these notions persist. Pearl talked about subconscious bias, which is spot-on. A number of studies show that we are more likely to trust familiar groups of people—our in-group—and fear less familiar groups—our out-group. In most of these studies, in-group/out-group identification is examined along socio-economic lines. This particular study, Olsson et al. show an immediate, unconscious fear response in subjects’ amygdala (the center of the brain responsible for emotion) when viewing pictures of racial out-groups.
A recent study by Navarette et al. sought to generalize this finding. In-group/out-groups were defined artificially—subjects were grouped according to t-shirt color and position in a game. Still, subjects showed similar fear responses. Sounds a bit like neighborhood fear-patterning, right?
Fear is essential for our survival. Operant conditioning explains fear as a result of negative association. If a rat gets shocked when it steps on a certain patch, it is more likely to avoid that patch in the future. Operant conditioning also extends from “negative association” to “non-association.” If we have not experienced a situation before, we cannot predict the outcome and are more likely to avoid it. In other words, our emotional reactions to current experiences are always informed by past experiences—or lack thereof.
All of this is has an upside, though. Although Olsson’s article was rather gloomy to me—that we have this immediate fear response to out-group members—it did have an upside. Olsson showed that subjects’ fear responses to racial out-groups were lessened by close personal experience with members of these out-groups. And, if out-group formation is as fluid as Navarette’s study suggests, then these fear responses are surmountable. Sure, it takes hard work and open-mindedness, but its possible.
So, to reiterate Pearl’s point: Go out and explore! Because only then will you overcome some of the biases you might be holding, and only then will you experience all this city has to offer!
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