Now here’s something you don’t hear every day: Recent research suggests that people with the rare genetic condition Williams Syndrome do not fear other races. NPR’s Michel Martin talked to one of the study’s authors, Dr. Andreas Meyer-Lundenber. Pop the hood for details.
According to recent research, those afflicted by the rare genetic disorder known as Williams Syndrome substantially less prone to develop racist attitudes than those without Williams.
Dr. MEYER-LINDENBERG: Yes. Williams Syndrome is a very interesting genetic syndrome that, as you said, it’s fairly rare. It’s caused by the deletion of a stretch of genes on one of the chromosomes. And that probably by itself wouldn’t be that interesting if it weren’t for very interesting consequences that that has on the people who have this and on their behavior.
One of the things that is especially striking is that they’re what we call hyper-social. So they’re extremely interested in other people. They’re extremely empathetic and they will actively seek out and talk to pretty much everyone. As someone has said, for a person with Williams Syndrome, everyone in the world is their friend.
MICHEL MARTIN: As you describe Williams Syndrome, it doesn’t sound like such a bad thing to have. Is there any downside to Williams Syndrome?
Dr. MEYER-LINDENBERG: If you could just take the hyper-sociability, the fact that people with Williams Syndrome do not get those danger signals often get them into trouble. They are quite often victims of crimes because of that. In addition to that, Williams Syndrome has a variety of things that aren’t so nice that usually goes along with a certain degree of learning disability and mental retardation.
But they also have, interestingly, strongly increased non-social fears. They’re often afraid of the dark or of spiders or what might happen to them in the future. So as a group, they are certainly delightful to be around. But I don’t think that as a group they’re happier than the normal population.
MARTIN: What made you want to evaluate what the syndrome would mean in the context of racial bias or the development of racial bias? What gave you the idea?
Dr. MEYER-LINDENBERG: We’ve been working extensively on what underlies the hyper-social ability of William Syndrome, and the conclusion that we reached is that they essentially have no social fears. Their brains don’t process social danger signals such as angry faces or any kind of social threats. And we thought, if that is true, we have a unique opportunity to test the hypothesis that racial bias might have to do something with social fear.
The opportunity is unique because usually pretty much everyone has social fear. And Williams Syndrome, we have the situation that these people have never experienced social fear, even from birth.
MARTIN: And what you say in the study is that to our knowledge this is the first indication of the absence of racial stereotyping in a human group, which is quite remarkable.
Dr. MEYER-LINDENBERG: We know that’s true. It is amazing how stable racial stereotypes are in a normal human population above three years of age. Pretty much everyone will strongly prefer their own ethnic group.
Now if they took this and came up with some sort of anti-hater vaccine, we could really get someplace.