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The "cranky racist old person" is almost a stereotype at this point. And when Grandpa says something grossly inappropriate at Thanksgiving, the defense others offer is always the same: "He's from a different time."
But science says Grandpa's fondness for shouting racial slurs at televised basketball games isn't necessarily due to having grown up in pre-segregation America. He may be suffering from a condition called shrinky-brain.
Or as the elderly call it, "Duuuuuuhhhh."
OK, the name of the condition is one we just made up, but the phenomenon is very real. According to a paper from the University of Queensland in Australia, when people age, their brains begin to atrophy, the gray matter shriveling up like your junk on a cold day (or, if you're a woman, like your boyfriend's junk on a cold day). Some important areas that suffer from atrophy are the frontal lobes.
The frontal lobes are the "good angel" on your shoulder, and they regulate and inhibit impulses and thoughts you know aren't good for you. They're the part of the brain that says stuff like "Hey, I know you want to kick that snotty little kid right in the face, but please refrain from doing so. People are watching."
"Use your fists. They do more precise damage."
The paper showed that elderly people whose frontal lobes had atrophied were literally unable to regulate their thoughts. For example, elderly people were asked questions designed to test inhibition (i.e., whether they could stop their initial responses to questions). When the elderly were asked, "What color are a tiger's spots?" they were more likely to answer "black" than to inhibit their initial response and actually think about what the question was asking (tigers have stripes, not spots).
They know the right answer, but the ability to stop the knee-jerk reaction just isn't there. The paper suggests that the inability to inhibit responses also applies to racism and other socially unacceptable behavior. So while being old doesn't cause racism, it makes it more difficult to suppress or stop vocalizing racist thoughts. Whereas the rest of us might have the thoughts, but we've gotten really good at burying them deep down.
Well, this won't be controversial.
Deciding to bite off a shitload to see if they could chew it, researchers Deborah L. Hall, David C. Matz, and Wendy Wood took to the task of collecting and analyzing 55 different studies from the years 1964 to 2000 on the topics of religion and racism. What they found, across these studies on more than 20,000 participants, was that there is a strong link between membership in a church (the examples in this case happened to be white Christians) and racism.
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"You seem a little on the tan side, cameraman. How about we take this next one outside?"
The conclusion was not that the religion itself taught anyone to be racist (admonitions against it are pretty clear), but that it had more to do with being a member of a tight-knit group that was bound by a belief that they were more moral than those outside the group. As we saw in the oxytocin example above, humans are funny that way -- loving our own group more tends to cast everyone outside of it into shadow. And, unfortunately, people overwhelmingly tend to worship with members of their own race.
The study also showed that "People who were religious because of their respect for tradition and social convention were especially likely to be racist." In other words, their belief that their group was superior wasn't just about biblical dogma, but about a "traditional" way of behaving -- that is, like white Christians. It starts with "Don't trust those guys, they believe in a different god," but spreads to "Don't trust those guys, they talk different, dress different, and listen to different music."
"Of course you can join in. You can hold the book for us!"
But it was all about the group, and not so much the beliefs -- there actually wasn't a difference between hardcore fundamentalists and moderates when it came to racism. It was more about the trap we fall into when declaring our group to be the best -- something that is hardly exclusive to churches. It's just that it's easier when you're in a group that you literally think God has declared to be supreme. The preacher could sit them all down and command them to stop being racist, but, well, we already told you how that goes.
For more advanced psychology from Cracked.com, check out 6 Weird Things That Influence Bad Behavior More Than Laws and 6 'Wuss' Behaviors That Were Once Badass Survival Instincts.