Racism and sexism stem from an "optical illusion" in the brain which causes an "implicit bias" against those who appear different.
This is the conclusion of academics investigating why people hold culturally defined prejudices.
Speaking at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston, Professor Lydia Villa-Komaroff said the brain has developed a number of shortcuts which produce a "cognitive illusion" of knowledge, making people prone to hold views such as fearing large black men and thinking maths is a "male" subject.
Subscribe to The Week
Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.
"It is a human thing, all of us are subject to implicit bias that arises because of our evolutionary and cultural history," Villa-Komaroff said.
The shortcut to fearing or distrusting difference evolved because "we grew up among lions and tigers and bears and people who wanted our property", she added. "We are prone to think that, because of our necessity to survive, anything that's different might be threatening and that remains part of the human condition. So we tend to think of differentness as possibly dangerous."
Villa-Komaroff also said that by recognising the problem and taking steps to address it society can be transformed dramatically for the better.
Georgia State University has completely eliminated the gaps in academic performance based on race, ethnicity and poverty — "attracting attention from academic institutions in South Africa, where the legacy of apartheid still resonates", says The Independent.
An online test has even been developed by Harvard University to enable people to discover just how implicitly biased they are, adds the paper.
Continue reading for free
We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.
Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.