Neuron Culture

Ed Yong, Mo Costandi, Scientific American, and others have covered nicely a new paper finding that people with WIlliams syndrome (a condition I’ve been interested in since writing a long feature about it for the Times Magazine a few years back) show little or no racial bias. But I wanted to add one thought about the finding.

Most of the write-ups have emphasized, rightly, that people with Williams tend to show little or no social fear – a lack that could explain a lack of racial bias. If you don’t fear people, you don’t feel out-groups. Yet as I noted in my article, people with Williams also show a distinct lack of social savvy, and I think this could contribute too:

If a person suffers the small genetic accident that creates Williams syndrome, he’ll live with not only some fairly conventional cognitive deficits, like trouble with space and numbers, but also a strange set of traits that researchers call the Williams social phenotype or, less formally, the “Williams personality”: a love of company and conversation combined, often awkwardly, with a poor understanding of social dynamics and a lack of social inhibition. The combination creates some memorable encounters. Oliver Sacks, the neurologist and author, once watched as a particularly charming 8-year-old Williams girl, who was visiting Sacks at his hotel, took a garrulous detour into a wedding ceremony. “I’m afraid she disrupted the flow of this wedding,” Sacks told me. “She also mistook the bride’s mother for the bride. That was an awkward moment. But it very much pleased the mother.”

So how might this lead to less or no racial bias? Most reactions to the paper have emphasized the lack of social fear that people with Williams. Doubtless that contributes. Yet I wonder if their lack of social savvy, particularly their tendency to miss the meaning behind hints or other veiled statements, whether friendly or hostile. Of you need to end a conversation with someone who happens to have Williams, the old reliable “Well, I should let you go” probably won’t work, because your friend probably won’t perceive this cue’s real signal (“I’d like to be let go now.”). Likewise they’ll miss most veiled threats. “Williamses,” as I put it in the article, “do not generally sniff out the sorts of hidden meanings and intentions that lie behind so much human behavior.” [I used that construction -- "Williamses" -- because IO was urged to do so by Williamses and their families, who find it friendlier and less distancing than "people with Williams."]

You can see where this is going. These days, when people express racism, they usually do so via subtle, layered meanings or coded phrases. Not too many come right out and say, “I think ___ people are inferior [or scary, etc.].” They convey it in phrasing that allows some plausible denial, perhaps even to the speaker. Such, for instance, was possibly the case when House Speaker Harry Reid reportedly said Obama could win because he was “light-skinned” and had “no Negro dialect.” (I say possibly because it’s conceivable — though I think unlikely — that Reid was making only a political observation about other people’s racism.) One time my sister, hearing a remark along those lines, advised the speaker, “Excuse me, your cape is showing.”

If such comments communicate racism, they can spread it too. But not to Williamses. Politely assuming straightforward talk, they notice neither the cape nor its ugly history.

Comments

  1. #1 Luna_the_cat
    April 14, 2010

    Ok, I think this is a reasonable take — I think you’re on to something here.

    Now, how does one test it?

  2. #2 becca
    April 14, 2010

    Does this imply that sexism is socially expressed in an overt fashion? Since the Williamses in this study *did* exhibit gender bias.

  3. #3 Pamela Herd
    April 14, 2010

    I have a 2 year old daughter with Williams Syndrome. First, while I have no doubt that some parents preferred the term “Williamses”, there are plenty of us who do not. My daughter happens to have Williams Syndrome; it’s a part of who she is, it’s not who she is.

    That said, I appreciate the nuance of your interpretation. I find some of the simplicity of the literature on Williams to be fairly irritating. Indeed, my daughter is very outgoing and fearless. But she does make distinctions amongst people. She doesn’t engage with every person she sees. Amongst those that she knows well, she clearly has favorites. And among strangers, she is drawn only to certain people. And I have yet to figure out what it is that she sees, particularly among strangers, that attracts her to some and not others.

  4. #4 David Dobbs
    April 14, 2010

    Luna,

    Do you mean test the hypothesis? Seems a difficult prospect, since you’re testing for an absence and can’t do a controlled experiment. But perhaps others have other ideas.

    If you mean testing for Williams (which I doubt, but I’ll mention in case others are wondering), that’s a pretty simple genetic test.

    Becca — good question. I’ll try to find time to give that one some thought. Couple off the top: A) Perhaps send much stronger signals about gender than race. B) More fundamentally, our perception of gender differences is much more hard-wired and biologically significant.

    I’m not terribly satisfied with that early morning hypothesis, but perhaps it will inspire other, better ones from readers.

  5. #5 AmoebaMike
    April 14, 2010

    I’ve seen lots of news on this in the past day or so, but I fail to see the reason it’s of such interest. Are people looking for a way to excuse racism as being genetically based?

    That seems quite troubling. Stereotyping seems to me to have real-world uses, but our civility–our “humanness”–allows us to move past such things as race in day to day operations.

  6. #6 David Dobbs
    April 14, 2010

    Pamela,

    Thanks so much for weighing in. Your note is a good reminder that findings like those in this paper, and observations about the sorts of behaviors that Wms Syndrome generates —— and how people with the condition like it to be referred to — vary among people who have it (and among their families).

    For my fuller take, do see the Times article, which is linked above.

  7. #7 Jefrir
    April 14, 2010

    Gender roles actually are pretty overt; for example, someone who looks at who is actually involved in roles like childcare could quite reasonably conclude that this is “women’s work”. Sexism in terms of differences in expectations of men and women tends to be pretty open and obvious, in a way that racism generally isn’t.

  8. #8 znz
    April 14, 2010

    @AmoebaMike:

    Who can explain why anything is interesting? Things are interesting because they initiate the “interest response” in people. One person’s source of unbounded fascination is another person’s intolerable tedium.

    In this case, they’ve found one particular group with a particular genetic anomaly that doesn’t do something that every other human does. That alone I would have thought interesting. In this case, it also happens to relate to something of immense social and practical importance: racism. And it could lead to insights into the neural or mental processes underlying racism. All of these seem to me to be excellent reasons to qualify it to be considered widely interesting.

  9. #9 Luna_the_cat
    April 14, 2010

    David, I did indeed mean “test the hypothesis”, I figured there was already a genetic test for the condition.

    I apologise for the brevity of my post, I was in kind of a rush this morning. I realise that, yes, there is a problem in being able to test why there might be a lack of racism for one particular reason — in fact, it had me stumped for any obvious way to do so, hence the question. But if you have an effect which might be the result of multiple very different causes, teasing those causes apart to see what is really going on becomes important, so I don’t want to just shrug and say “meh, can’t do it” either.

  10. #10 Constance Cummings
    April 16, 2010

    Interesting, but perhaps the genes controlling social behavior are turned up and override other brain areas controlling bias?