Adapting to a Multicultural Future

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Science  18 May 2012:
Vol. 336, Issue 6083, pp. 853-855
DOI: 10.1126/science.1219009


Humans have an evolved propensity to think categorically about social groups. This propensity is manifest in cognitive processes that have broad implications for public and political endorsement of multicultural policy. Drawing on these principles, we postulate a cognitive-evolutionary account of human adaptation to social diversity. This account explains broad social trends marking a resistance to multiculturalism, while providing an important reorienting call for scholars and policy-makers seeking intervention-based solutions to the problem of prejudice.

Our lifetimes have witnessed unprecedented levels of intercultural exchange, enabled by ever-enhancing transport technologies and a truly globalized communications infrastructure. We no longer live in the homogenized, provincial worlds that have typified much of human history. Nationality no longer denotes race as Western societies are increasingly characterized by complex combinations of national, religious, ethnic, and cultural identity (1). In terms of our evolutionary history, we are entering uncharted territory: Never before have humans had to deal with social environments defined by such degrees of diversity and differentiation.

Unsurprisingly, how people adapt to this diversity has been a persistent and pervasive characteristic of public, political, and scholarly debate. Proponents of the “multiculturalism hypothesis” assert that societies valuing a constellation of distinct cultural, ethnic, and religious identities inspire intergroup harmony (2)—an assertion well founded on empirical research (1, 2). Yet such findings stand in stark contrast to the realpolitik of intercultural relations. Despite state-endorsed policies promoting multiculturalism, diversity often appears to accompany conflict, not peaceful coexistence. A striking example is the multiracial city of Bradford, (Yorkshire, UK), which in July 2001, despite high levels of geographical integration of the south Asian and white communities, was the epicenter of Britain’s worst-ever race riots (3). It is therefore perhaps not surprising that opponents of multiculturalism argue that diversity is the anathema to social cohesion and is integral to the etiology of civic unrest and social disharmony. Recent reviews of the literature have gone on to question the assertion that closer social integration promotes positive outcomes (4). Experimental studies add to this complex picture, showing that attempts to promote multicultural ideology can reduce prejudice while at the same time maintaining (often negative) cultural stereotypes (5) or buttressing support for inequality (6).

Behavioral scientists (ourselves included) often bemoan the glacial rate at which basic social science is translated into policy and practice. Ironically, it is the perplexing picture painted by existing diversity perspectives that is in danger of defining the field’s policy impact. In the absence of any clear message from the scientific community, policies that espoused the multicultural ideal over the past 50 years have begun to unravel, with politicians and policy-makers declaring the multicultural “experiment” a failure. As sociologist Joppke (7) observed, after many years characterized by the liberal pursuit of diversity-based ideals, we are now witnessing a chronic lack of public and political support that has precipitated a wholesale retreat of the multicultural state. Joppke’s observations resonate in political rhetoric. Echoing comments made by the British prime minister (8), German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently announced that attempts to build a multicultural society in Germany have “utterly failed” and that the so-called “multikulti” concept, where people would “live side-by-side” happily, simply did not work (9).

Are we therefore, as some scholars suggest, heading irrevocably toward a “clash of civilizations” (10), as tensions erupt and escalate around differences in race, religion, culture, and ethnicity? We contend that this is not the case and that such a conclusion ignores a raft of recent studies in the behavioral sciences, and evolutionary social cognition in particular, that provide a more panoramic perspective to the multicultural debate. Most important, consideration of this work changes the fundamental question asked of multicultural ideals and suggests a need to reorient scholarly, public, and political foci on this most critical of contemporary social issues.

To fully understand ailing support for multicultural policy, we must ask why people are resistant to social diversity in the first place. The answer may lie in evolved human preferences for homogeneity, stability, simplicity, and structure (11). These preferences are exemplified in mental systems for representing groups and group differences. Adaptive fitness is contingent on the development of functionalized cognitive architectures that most effectively represent the prevailing social ecology (12). Accordingly, groups should provide the context for the selection and evolution of cognitive processes—the natural way for the mind to construe reality for an inherently social species (11).

Consistent with this explanatory framework, human social cognition has adapted to ancestral environments defined by simple “us” versus “them” category boundaries, enabling a clear way of distinguishing friend from foe. This preference for representing categorical differences is reflected in contemporary social psychological research. Extensive evidence shows how categorical thinking enables others to be identified, in a matter of milliseconds, as ingroup or outgroup members (13). These findings are indicative of an evolved neurocomputational architecture needed to rapidly detect covariation between allegiance and perceptual categorization cues (14).

This sensitivity to group differences was an adaptive, efficient coalitional detection system in largely localized and monocultural ancestral environments. In such environments, tribal boundaries were likely to be clear-cut, with little potential for category confusion or need to construct cross-cutting tribal allegiances. It is a mechanism, however, rather unsuited to the level of diversity that, in a short evolutionary time scale, has come to characterize many modern societies. Processing preferences for simple “us” versus “them” category boundaries are antithetical to environments in which nationality, race, religion, and ethnicity form multiple, cross-cutting bases for social affiliation. It is the conflict between this changing social ecology and evolved preferences for defined category boundaries that can explain generalized resistance to multicultural ideologies, avoidance of intercultural contact, and negative reactions to social diversity.

However, heuristic systems must possess the ability to make modifications to extant cognitive structures. This is essential to improve efficient classification in future encounters—that is, to deal with exceptions to the rule. The operation of this updating mechanism may be the key to understanding how humans successfully adapt to social diversity.

Our contention is that two systems now constitute humans’ coalitional machinery (Fig. 1). System 1 is an automatic, early-evolved system for detecting covariance with “us” versus “them” category cues, designed for the effective maintenance of existing allegiances in largely monocultural ancestral environments (14). However, with population growth and advances in transport technology, opportunities for intercultural contact began to transcend local intergroup relations. In this new world of multiple intergroup differences (and potential threats), a second system was needed to capitalize on more complex, cross-cutting bases for coalitional security. Such a system provides an adaptive advantage—a cognitive capability for building new alliances in a world otherwise overrun by outgroups.

Fig. 1

An evolved dual-system computational architecture for detecting and building coalitions. System 1 is an early-evolved system for automatically detecting covariance with category cues, adaptive in largely monocultural ancestral environments. Coalitional adaptation to multicultural environments requires System 2 to resolve category-based inconsistencies arising from the complex and cross-cutting affiliations characteristic of social diversity.

The processing steps involved in this second system are specified in a recent model of diversity-based cognition (15): (i) Category-based inconsistency is detected (i.e., positive and/or counterstereotypical outgroup behaviors), which (ii) initiates inhibition of existing category representations in favor of more generative thinking, which (iii) results in a creative reconstrual of targets (as potential coalition allies). This cognitive resolution of category-discrepant targets enabled ancestral humans to reach beyond existing intergroup differences—to turn these intergroup differences into intragroup diversity, competition into coalition. The complexity of the computational processes involved in these steps is considerable but is consistent with what we know about the link between brain size and the evolution of human societies (12). Indeed, it can be argued that the human brain is the largest among primates precisely because it is specialized to deal with the challenging forms of social interaction involved in intercultural contact.

Thus, while humans are evolutionarily disposed to think heuristically about category boundaries (System 1), they also possess the computational mechanics that allow a bypassing of this system when it is necessary to update and revise these representations (System 2). Diversity-based applications of this second system provide an explanatory framework for macrosocial trends rooted in the social cognition of the individual. Consistent with the processing principles outlined above, successful intercultural contact requires cognitive control to counter evolved tendencies to contrast ingroups from outgroups. At the most basic level, positive outgroup encounters will be inconsistent with existing category representations (outgroup = negative), so the second system is triggered to inhibit, resolve, and reclassify.

Evidence for the operation of this second system can be found in experimental studies of social categorization (16, 17). For instance, these studies have shown that when outgroup targets simultaneously share a basis for mutual affiliation with the ingroup (i.e., conflicting categorization cues), this leads to more positive perceptions. However, even targets defined by multiple (e.g., five) outgroup categories are more positively evaluated than targets defined by a single outgroup identity—a tendency statistically explained by a cognitive reconstrual of the target as an individual rather than an (oppositional) group member. This is particularly the case when multiple outgroup categories are low in conceptual overlap (e.g., German, Muslim) versus highly correlated (e.g., Pakistani, Muslim). Such findings support the idea that it is the inconsistency between multiple categorizations that initiates System 2. These reconstruals of outgroup targets consume attentional reserves (18), but this is an adaptation that discourages overengagement. In ancestral environments, it would be unwise to too easily cast aside category boundaries learned through experience.

In sum, experimental research supports the proposition that coalitional architectures comprise two systems: one for automatically detecting covariance with category cues (14), and one for updating expectancies in environments characterized by social diversity (15). In multicultural environments, the second system is required to inhibit existing category-based expectations and compute potential risks, costs, and benefits arising from cooperative interaction. Such is the way complex societies are formed, fostered, prosper, and grow.

This cognitive-evolutionary account has implications for both future research and social policy initiatives. The existence of two coalitional systems could explain diverging outcomes after intercultural contact, as well as withdrawal from ideologies promoting greater integration. Simply bringing groups together will likely do little other than initiate System 1, a mechanism for maintaining existing coalitional boundaries. In contrast, when policy encourages individuals to embrace new, cross-cutting bases for social affiliation, particularly those that defy category-based expectancies, then activation of System 2’s coalition-building function may more readily reduce the negative emotions that inhibit intergroup contact, and in turn promote more positive engagement with outgroups.

Understanding when either system will be initiated could also help in the development of diversity-based interventions for reducing prejudice. For instance, the model suggests that future research should not simply aim to discourage the use of System 1 (e.g., through colorblind approaches) but to actively engage System 2 (e.g., recognize cross-cutting or counterstereotypic combinations of gender, race, occupation, and socioeconomic status). This idea—that coalitional systems can adjust to include outgroups—affirms and extends existing social cognitive theory advocating the recognition of group differences (19).

Incorporating the principle of cognitive adaptation also provides the potential to leverage new paradigms from evolutionary psychology in the pursuit of prejudice reduction. For instance, evolutionary theory regarding the hierarchical nature of human motivation (20) suggests that to facilitate activation of System 2, interventions should be framed by the goal of coalition building while avoiding other adaptive goals such as (in)group protection.

This cognitive-evolutionary account also provides the basis for greater cross-disciplinary integration in the development of diversity theory, involving contributions from both the biological and social sciences. For instance, local economic and political dynamics, immigration history, and the pace of intercultural mixing should interact to predict activation of brain regions linked to the operation of System 2, which should correspondingly be reflected in macrosocial trends toward tolerance and harmonious intergroup relations.

Has the multicultural “experiment” failed? The answer is that we just don’t know, not because science has failed to make a contribution, but because we have not been asking quite the right questions. The research discussed above suggests that social diversity results in coalitional (i.e., cooperative, tolerant) behavior only when it requires one to think beyond the ancestral building blocks of modern society. Predicting how people will react to multiculturalism therefore requires more focused scientific research on which coalitional systems are activated when different policies are communicated (or communicated in different ways).

More generally, we would argue that to provide clear science-based directives concerning multicultural policy, researchers must better understand the operation of cognitive systems that manage our capacity to navigate socially diverse environments. We must harness those systems and capitalize on their potential to inform, focus, and frame future policy in this area. Perhaps only by considering the origins and evolution of such systems can we fully understand the impact of broad-based initiatives for social change.


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