Prejudice, Social Bonding and Health
April 10 marked the close of Samueli Institute’s Well Community Project with an event connecting community grantees and national policy and philanthropic leaders. The Well Community Project and its participating communities moved beyond disease-oriented approaches to a health and wellness perspective that now included missing elements of healing, resiliency, wellness and quality of life. Healing legacies of racism and building social connections emerged as common themes to address.
It also marked my 60th birthday. Funny how turning 60 gets you thinking more deeply about what is truly relevant in life. This and the dialogue at the Well Community Project had me thinking of how essential social cohesion is to the health and wellbeing of communities. In fact, it may be one of the most important elements of all for human flourishing.
Overcoming unconscious prejudice
In an increasingly global society, the key to success in community wellbeing may very well be a lack of prejudice, and the ability to understand, empathize and connect deeply with others who are not like us. Racism, unconscious prejudice, and failure to deal with growing health and economic disparities are the result of inherent biological judgment processes that undermine our society and its health and wellbeing. Indeed major global catastrophes religious and cultural wars may also be based on them.
What helped us survive prevents us from thriving
These inherent biological judgment processes were a survival mechanism – back when we were evolving in small groups on the plains of Africa. Then we needed to judge quickly good from bad and enemy from friend, based on physical appearance, without pausing to determine the others’ true underlying motivations. On average, this rapid judgment of other humans allowed our genes to survive. This unconscious process is built into our genetic, psychological and social nature.
But what once helped us survive is now hurting us and preventing us from thriving.
These reactive processes are largely automatic, unconscious, and perceptual. They are present in very early reactions of babies, and are molded and directed by the family and culture in which children are raised. They are then reinforced in day-to-day human social dynamics and amplified by media and digital communication.
They lead to humans automatically devaluing other humans based on physical or other characteristics. This “automatic hierarchical valuing (and de-valuing)” of human beings leads to differential treatment with major consequences such as racism, failure to respond to poverty, and ignoring violence against others not like us. These processes often undermine even our best intentions and activities to improve health and wellbeing in the world. Thus, other grand challenges are at risk unless we address this process.
Studies show automatic reactions can change
Fortunately, we know that these skills and automatic reactions can be changed. There are tools for addressing unconscious bias and prejudice. There are methods for seeing prejudice in ourselves and for learning how to reduce those automatic reactions and to develop a deeper understanding, compassion and responsiveness for other not like us.
Studies on our psychological and social epigenetics demonstrate that we can overcome these inherent biological processes and create a more unified world with greater love and well-being.
Thought leaders on the cutting-edge of social change are doing just this. By investing in the science of narrative and its ability to dismantle racism, experts are contributing to national and international change in perceptions about race and health through programs like the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s America Healing.
Is it possible to accelerate and scale these learnings rapidly? Can we create a way through technology, social media, storytelling and rapid interaction to dismantle this unconscious bias and perceive the fundamental equal value among all human beings?
Social cohesion and healing at the core of human flourishing
Social cohesion and social healing is one of the core elements of human flourishing in the Samueli Institute model of an optimal healing environment. Even when the physical cure of a disease is not possible, social bonding and our social environment can sustain us. Like water in a garden, social cohesion is essential to survival.
I remember visiting a middle-aged woman in her mud hut in Tanzania, East Africa. She had advanced rheumatoid arthritis. Totally unable to stand or walk, she was huddled in her small dark hut, laying on a wooden platform a few inches off the dirt floor. So advanced was her untreated disease that she was locked into motionlessness, her legs and arms contracted in frozen stiffness. Yet to look at her face and to speak with her was to experience the joy of living. She was beaming and glad to see us. All smiles and chatter.
How could this be?, I wondered.
Here in a remote village, in a mud hut with no running water, no toilets and none of the basic amenities that we think are needed for normal decent human life. But then I noticed that she had her children and her grandchildren and her great grandchildren with her. They were teaming around her within the hut interacting with her, talking with her, touching her and supporting her.
This social interaction was the water upon which she thrived. One could see a glow of wellbeing and joy in her that was beyond that experienced by many others in much richer circumstances and without health problems.
We must seek ways to deliver this water of social sustenance and bonding. We must understand better how it can be delivered and how it operates among groups. We must learn how to measure it and make it a core value of our society. We must create a social wellbeing index (SWI) to measure and track it. The SWI must become as important for our society as the GNP, because social bonding and social cohesion is the glue by which all elements of human wellbeing flourish and grow. Social bonding is the core element that will help reduce and a eliminate prejudice.
The same prejudice that created us must now be dismantled if we are to survive as a species.