How Traveling Helps People Become More Open-Minded And Less Racist

by Ronnie Charrier

Many will be familiar with Mark Twain’s famous quote about traveling:

“travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.”

Since Mr. Twain put these words to paper in 1869, a mountain of evidence has been gathered in support of the notion that we can become more flexible in our thinking, build stronger connections, and replace fear of the unknown with trust in humanity… when we travel.

Basically, traveling makes us become better humans, and there is science to support this idea.

In 1968, almost 100 years after Twain, a Polish-American psychologist by the name of Robert Zajonc conducted a landmark study at the University of Michigan on how our brains react to familiar and unfamiliar images. This research would become the foundation of the well-documented “mere exposure effect,” whereby the more we’re exposed to something, the better we like it.

This led to researchers Leslie Zebrowitz and Yi Zhang at Brandeis University setting out to prove if this effect applied to people also. Their question was simple: What would happen – at the cognitive level – if they showed people faces of individuals of different ethnicities over and over?

Their study, which was published in 2012, looked at whether repeated exposure like this would either increase the approach reflex or decrease the avoidance reflex. As Zhang put it, he was trying to find out if “we start to feel better about those stimuli or […] less bad about them?” What the two researchers hypothesized was that repeated exposure to unfamiliar stimuli would help our brains unlearn unconscious biases and assumptions, including racist ones.

To this end, the researchers conducted an fMRI study of 16 white men and 16 white women. Each participant was exposed to pictures of black faces, Korean faces, written Chinese characters, and random shapes. These pictures were shown a different numbers of times to the participants, with some pictures never shown and others shown many times. Next, the researchers put each participant into the fMRI machine and exposed them to 40 images they’d never seen before and 20 they had. The idea was to see how and where the brain would react.

The scientists found that the unfamiliar images activated subjects’ avoidance reflex; or stated simply, people were afraid of the unknown. And this wasn’t just for faces, as the same effect occurred when respondents were exposed to unfamiliar shapes and Chinese characters. This made sense: humans have evolved to fear the unknown because it signals potential harm. However, the study subjects’ avoidance reflex was significantly reduced when they were exposed to the same faces, shapes, and characters they’d seen before going into the fMRI machine.

Zhang observed another effect as well, one that speaks to our inherent fear of what we don’t know. “Once our participants have been exposed to a prototypical Korean face,” she explained, “they start to show less adverse reactions to other faces in the same racial category.” This familiarity to images and faces helped the participants’ brains to generalize from the particular images they were exposed to, which in turn reduced their race-based biases overall.

What that study helped us understand is that it’s not that we like things that we are familiar with more, rather we fear them less. This is one of the reasons people typically enjoy their own homes and surrounding areas where they live: we feel safe when we’re surrounded by the familiar. We may not even particularly like the town in which we live, or the furniture in our home, but it gives us comfort to have these things around because they don’t evoke a fearful response from our bodies.

So then, how does travel come into all of this?

Well, Adam Galinsky, a professor at Columbia Business School, said in an interview with The Atlantic, “Foreign experiences increase both cognitive flexibility, and depth and integrativeness of thought; the ability to make deep connections between disparate forms.”

The cross-cultural experiences that people have while traveling can pull them out of their cultural bubbles, and in doing so, potentially increase their sense of connection with people from backgrounds different than their own. “We found that when people had experiences traveling to other countries it increased what’s called generalized trust, or their general faith in humanity,” Galinsky says. “When we engage in other cultures, we start to have experience with different people and recognize that most people treat you in similar ways. That produces an increase in trust.”

Much like the study on familiar faces and shapes, this exposure to new places and cultures helps peoples’ minds become more flexible in thinking, allowing them to more easily identify similarities between themselves and the people they are visiting. The obvious benefit to this is that this way of thinking leads to having more trust for humanity as a whole.

Traveling is obviously a great way to expose oneself to different people, ideas, and experiences, but that isn’t always an option for everyone, and that’s ok too. There are still ways that we can train our brains to be less prejudiced, and to understand the biases that we hold.

Dr. Sondra Thiederman, a workplace diversity expert and the founder of Cross Cultural Communications, a company which trains employees in diverse workplaces, stressed the importance of acknowledging one’s existing racial biases without negative judgement. If people don't feel attacked and labelled as “racist”, they're going to be more willing to acknowledge and try to change their behavior.

"Our culture has fallen into this thing that if you have an unconscious bias, that somehow makes you evil or stupid or somehow inadequate, and the reality is we’ve all got ‘em. What matters isn’t that we have them or not, it’s what we do about them and whether we take responsibility for them."

Just being aware that you have racial biases isn't enough to start solving them, but it is a necessary first step. According to Monitor on Psychology, the journal of the American Psychological Association, "awareness of prejudiced responses leads to guilt, which leads to self-regulation to prevent future prejudice."

After you’ve accepted and recognized your own biases, begin learning more about racism. This can happen through self-reflection, open discussions, new experiences, or even just reading.

Traveling is an amazing way to start this process, but if that’s not an option for you, try picking up a copy of Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me, or philosophy professor Lawrence Blum's I'm Not A Racist, But… , a book that is used by educators because of its straightforward analysis of the language and concepts of race and racism. The Center for Social Inclusion maintains and frequently updates a reading list of papers and books about structural racism that you can view here.

We know that racism is everywhere. We know that we all have biases. But we also know that these beliefs can change, and that once they do, we are helping make the world that much better a place to live for everyone.

The world can be a better place. And all you have to do is your small part.