Have you ever sat next to the smelly guy? Did you ever wonder why nobody tells him that he smells, or why he can't smell himself? Doesn't he notice people getting up and changing seats when he sits down? How can he live his whole life being unaware of a flaw that is readily apparent to a total stranger 10 seconds after they've met?
Well, here's the thing: According to science, we're all the smelly guy. Figuratively, that is.
5We Are More Racist Than We Think
Here's something that doesn't make sense: On one hand, we know that racism is still a big deal (you can't argue with it -- studies show it still turns up in everything from jury decisions to hiring practices), but how many outright racists do you actually know? How many people at your office fling the blankets aside each morning and scream, "TODAY I SHALL OPPRESS A BLACK MAN!"?
Only a small one today, though. Maybe one day he'll aspire to insult Kobe Bryant's mother.
Probably not that many. So we have the seemingly impossible situation of a world with a lot of racism and not many racists (and no matter how anonymous you make the poll, you can never find significant numbers of people admitting to being racist). Science suggests it's because all of us are a little more racist than we think.
"I'm not racist; I totally love cosplay girls."
For instance, in one somewhat hilarious experiment, researchers just set up a bunch of conversations -- some between members of the same race, some between different races. Then, to liven things up, they had the conversations take place over a closed-circuit camera system and intentionally inserted awkward pauses into the conversations by adding a one-second delay. No, the participants didn't realize they were doing it.
When a white person was talking to a white person, the pauses were basically unnoticed. But in the interracial conversations, the awkward pauses caused the anxiety levels of the participants to go off the charts -- far more than in control conversations held face-to-face. No matter how nonracist and open-minded the participants thought they were, one second of awkward silence was all it took for a whole bunch of subconscious racial tensions to bubble up. "Goddamn it, I just can't connect with this person! He's different from me!"
"I can't really put my finger on why."
By the way, if you put us in the same room, we'll reflect that tension in our body language, regardless of our relationship to the other person. In another bizarre experiment, researchers showed a group some video clips of two people talking: one white guy and one guy who was obscured so the observers couldn't see what race he was. Test subjects could usually guess the race of the obscured guy just by watching the other one's body language.
The clips, by the way, were from TV shows where the characters were supposed to be equals and/or friendly with each other (that is, they weren't from cop shows where the white cop was arresting an obscured face wearing flamboyant pimp clothes). One of the shows that gave the "subconscious racist" response was Scrubs, for Christ's sake. These are real-life friends and colleagues playing the role of fake friends and colleagues. But put black and white together in the room, and on a subconscious level, things change.
Our funny on-screen bromance is just overcompensating for our acute racial tension!
Finally, and maybe strangest of all, is an experiment in which they gathered a random group of people -- not taken from a Klan rally or anything -- and made them watch an excruciating video of a guy's hand having a needle slooowly driven into the skin.
That involuntary wince you just did is happily a universal human response.
As you can imagine, the subjects literally felt the pain in their own hands ... as long as the hand on the screen was of the same race. The result was the same for the white and black participants -- they couldn't feel as much empathy for a member of another race.
And if you're about to say, "That's not racism! That's an involuntary response based on the fact that the hand being injured just didn't look like their own!" Hey, that's what the researchers thought, too, so they also included a purple hand. Subjects felt empathy toward it just fine. That's right -- the subjects couldn't muster empathy for a fellow human of another race but cringed at the thought of somebody hurting a fucking Night Elf.
4We Think We're Nicer Than We Are
The whole racism thing, however, just leads into a larger point.
Imagine that tomorrow you run across a person in need -- say a co-worker loses everything he owns in a fire, and everybody is making donations to help him out. In your imagination, how much would you give?
Now cut that amount in half. That's how much you'd give if the situation actually presented itself.
Which is bad if you gave him your child to help clean up.
See, no matter how much we make self-deprecating jokes or talk about how we suck and play the role of the lovable loser, experiments show that deep down, we think we are nicer and more generous than we actually are. Psychologists have long known that people tend to think they are more altruistic than the world in general, but researchers weren't sure if that was because we overestimate how great we are or because we underestimate everyone else. Hint: It's the first one.
People are dicks except for you; you're an adorable little buttercup!
Which brings us to the hypothetical situation above. A study at Cornell found that over the course of two experiments, of the participants who said they would donate to a charity (a staggering 80 percent), only half actually did when given the chance. Those who did donate gave only half as much as they previously said they would.
But, strangely, the amount of money donated in reality was close to what the participants predicted others would contribute. In other words, we have a pretty accurate idea of how selfish the rest of the world is, but in our imaginations, we don't perceive ourselves as being members of "the world." We all picture ourselves as members of an "elite moral minority."
"All right, homeless man, take the money -- just don't touch me!"
It wasn't just with money, either. Another study involved predicting whether subjects would take on a complex task rather than an easy one when they knew somebody else would get stuck with the task they didn't take. Most people thought, "Of course I'll do the harder task! It's only fair," but when actually presented with the task, they were far more likely to pawn it off on the other person ... even if they were told that person was a 10-year-old girl. Buckle your ass down, little Suzy!
You'd better get on and solve that economic problem we're having!