How can we increase our understanding and tolerance of difference?

buddha .jpg

Last week, a Radio 4 programme caught my attention while I was washing up. I turned up the volume and listened while Dr Girdari Bhan explained mourning traditions in Hinduism. For years now I’ve been interested in the ways that world religions are similar and different, so when I checked the programme summary on the BBC website, it said that the presenter, Euella Jackson, is keen to find out what we can learn from other cultures and faiths to help us through the grieving process. As I listened, I learned about Hinduism. Not just how Hindus view death and grieving and the after-life but how they view life. It loosened an idea that’s been floating round in my head for a couple of years. A bit of context …

After the second world war, from the 1950s onwards, social psychologists began studying prejudice and discrimination. In 1971, Tajfel suggested that an inevitable part of group dynamics is categorising people into our own group and the ‘other’ group. We accentuate perceived differences between us and the other group. We also accentuate similarities within our own group and enhance the status of the group we belong to by exaggerating their positive traits and ignoring less desirable ones. The most common motivations are protecting self-esteem and, ultimately, enhancing survival. Another explanation of prejudice stems from conformity to social norms. We conform to the norms of ‘our group’, and will only modify our behaviour if social norms change. During the second world war, US propaganda was known to shape American attitudes. The Russians were often perceived as positive. The Japanese and Germans were not. After the war, when the US and Russia became enemies, propaganda portrayed Russians as cruel and attitudes changed accordingly. This suggests that prejudice can be transient, and can be modified. A 1952 study by Minard found that black and white miners mixed below ground but maintained segregation above ground. This shows that prejudice can also be entrenched.

What’s depressing about these studies is that as long as we believe there are gains to the prejudices we hold, we have no reason to change them. If prejudice protects our self-esteem and enhances survival, why would we check whether our attitudes are accurate or fair? We know from Minard’s study that (mis)information can influence attitudes. That would suggest that prejudice can be based on ignorance. In fact, ignorance is a key part of prejudice. Prejudice is a (usually negative) attitude towards a group of people, based on characteristics which are assumed to be common to everyone in that group.


That’s a word I struggle with.

Psychologists also know that when resources are scarce, or we believe they are, and there is perceived competition for these resources, prejudice and discrimination often increase. In 1961, social psychologist, Sherif, randomly assigned teenage boys to groups at a summer camp. Group norms quickly developed. When Sherif set up contests, where winners gained at the expense of the other group, hostility quickly arose and fights broke out. Within-group cohesiveness grew. Sherif introduced social contact to see if this would reduce the prejudice. The boys ate and played together but resumed hostilities once pitted against each other again. Prejudice only decreased when the boys were forced to cooperate to achieve a common goal that was important to them all. What’s important then is having a reason to change our attitudes and behaviour. Nothing exemplifies this more than when we realise that we need each other in order to survive.

Before I return to the subject of today’s radio programme, I’ll mention the study conducted by Jane Elliott in 1977. She divided her class of nine-year-olds into two groups according to their eye colour: blue or brown. She told them that the brown-eyed children were superior and more intelligent, and gave them extra privileges. The blue-eyed children were given collars to mark them out, and they were denied privileges. Both groups began to conform to what they’d been told. The blue-eyed children became angry and demoralised, and their work suffered. The brown eyed ones dominated, produced better work and mis-treated the other group. The next day, Elliott told the children she’d made a mistake; that blue-eyed children were superior. The patterns of prejudice and discrimination quickly reversed. On the third day, she told her class the truth: there were no differences. She had simply wanted them to know what it felt like to be judged on the basis of one, irrelevant feature which they couldn’t change.   

What, then, do all these studies have to do with the radio programme on religion?

History and psychology tell us that the more threatened people feel during times of hardship, the more prejudice they show to other groups. They use them as scapegoats. A lot of the conflict in the world seems to stem from different religious views, at least partly. People quote teachings and unless we are familiar with that religion, it’s often difficult to know what is accurate and what is opinion. We know that prejudice involves assumptions, ignorance, social norms and propaganda, so surely it’s essential that we all get accurate information about the things that are causing conflict in the world?

This brings me to my idea: I would love to see many more programmes on TV and radio which will help us to understand the teachings of the world’s religions and cultures. Programmes could be presented by cross-faith and cross-cultural groups of people of all age ranges and backgrounds, including those with no religious knowledge and those with lots, those who are actively practising a religion and those who aren’t. And atheists. Programmes like these would be an excellent way of dispelling myths and creating a shared understanding of what it means to be Catholic, Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, Protestant, Jewish, Sikh, Bahai, Mormon, Jehovah’s Witness, atheist.

So, producers and programme commissioners – what do you say?

Vicky Newham © 2019



Vicky Newham