Saturday, November 6, 2010

Prejudice: A Perspective on Jane Elliot’s Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes Experiment

Jane Elliot’s “Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes” experiment was nothing short of shocking to me.  In the first portion, she split her third grade class up into two groups: brown eyes and blue eyes.  One day, she explained how the blue eyed students were better, the other day, how the brown eyed students were better.  I couldn’t believe how quickly those children began to discriminate against their classmates because of eye color.  A classroom full of bright, pleasant children turned into active and violent bigots.  Then, something similar happened in a later experiment with adults.

What astonished me about the children was the way they became the stereotypes that were handed out to them.  A perfect example of this was when the children were split up into groups and given reading tests.  The students who were deemed superior by eye color did better.  In fact, they did it almost twice as fast as the inferior eye color groups.  It did not matter who the children were, because the faster groups were always made up of the superiorly labeled children.  Clearly there is a relationship between acting inferior and being told one is inferior.  I could fabricate many reasons why this is, but I think the point is that if most of us heard any feedback (negative or positive) for an amount of time, our unconscious, if not the conscious as well, would begin to believe it to be true.  This could be related to some type of conditioning of the mind.  Also, Jane Elliot’s experiment shows how discrimination and prejudice can lead to the learned helplessness of those discriminated against.

Jane Elliot’s experiment with adults involved the same situation of brown eyes vs. blue eyes in a group of coworkers.  She obviously couldn’t be their teacher, so instead she pretended to be conducting a seminar.  Although the outward appearance of the demonstration seemed to be a lesson on listening, she hammered home the superiority of brown eyed people.  After a short amount of time, it became clear how biased the brown eyed people were toward the blue eyed people.  The blue eyed people in the adult group were not as helpless as the children in the inferior group, however.  I think that the blue eyed adults were likely higher in Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial development and had  better senses of themselves, which may have something to do with the intense reactions of some of the inferiorly labeled adults.  What was really interesting to me in this experiment was how readily the superiorly labeled adults (brown eyed people) accepted the inferiority of their blue eyed coworkers.  One of the first explanations I came up is the self-serving bias, in which people see things happening in their favor, and attribute successes to internal or personal factors.  According to research, the vast majority of people rate themselves better than average in most aspects.  Jane Elliot’s unrealistic reinforcement of this ideal might have lead to the prompt acceptance by the brown eyed people of their superiority over the blue eyed people.

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