What Discrimination Actually Looks Like: We Give Preferential Treatment to People Like Us

Discrimination isn’t just about exclusion

Photo: Tim MacPherson/cultura/Corbis

Discrimination isn't just about exclusion. According to a new study, open displays of hostility are actually not the most common form of discrimination. We're much more likely to discriminate by showing favoritisim to people who are like us.

The University of Washington researchers who came to this conclusion were surprised by their own finding. They had analyzied 50 years' worth of published studies, with the idea that compiling those studies' methodologies and conclusions might reveal some larger, more universal truth. As it turned out, discrimination most often manifested as preferentially helping someone rather than actively lashing out against another. 

We often display this kind of favoritism toward our friends or even friends-of-friends. But it can also be based on traits like race, age, gender, religion or a common geographical background. When we favor someone who has a connection to us (whether actual or perceived) for a job opening, spot on the soccer team or admission into a charter school, however, we can be, inadvertently, denying those opportunities to equally—if not more—worthy candidates.

“We can produce discrimination without having any intent to discriminate or any dislike for those who end up being disadvantaged by our behavior,” the researchers pointed out in a statement. The first step in combating it, they add, is to simply be aware of it.  

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.