Social Roles: What’s Better? Brown Eyes or Blue Eyes?

In 1968, the day after Martin Luther King Jr. was killed at a Memphis hotel, Jane Elliot walked into her third-grade classroom, and was struck with an idea for an exercise for her students.

She split the room up between those with brown eyes and those with blue eyes.

“The brown-eyed people are the better people in this room.” She said.

She told her students that due to a chemical that makes up eye color, those with brown eyes were smarter and cleaner.

Those unfortunate souls with blue eyes were now to be treated differently. They need to drink from Styrofoam cups at the water fountain, treated differently at recess, etc.

What happened next was fascinating.

Brown-eyed kids who were shy and reserved became confident and outgoing. They started smiling more.

Intelligent blue-eyed children began making unusual mistakes on tests and quizzes.

Brown-eyed kids began ostracizing the blue-eyed students, and treating them as if they were inferior. Lines were drawn. Groups were formed.

The next week Elliot came into the classroom and told the students that she had made a huge mistake. It was actually the blue-eyed students who were better. The brown-eyed kids were the dumb and lazy ones.

And the roles began to shift the other way.

Change Your Role To Change Your Life

What this says about prejudice at large is a huge sociological discussion and provides explanation to the absurdity and evil of discrimination throughout history.

However, this is a website about how to live a better life, and Elliot’s exercise tells us a lot about how we can change our own habits and behaviors, and therefore our lives.

The best way to change ourselves is to change our “role” in the world, and begin acting as if we already are that role.

Check it out.

There was some research done on these “Social Roles” by Brent Roberts, Joshua Jackson, & Wiebke Bleidorn. They found that when we invest in a certain role (i.e. that brown-eyed people are better people), then “over time those behaviors tend to become integrated into our personality.”

My man James Clear (and when I say “My man” I don’t mean that he’s my friend or that I actually even know him, but I read his blog and follow him on Instagram, so, yeah.) often writes that the best way to change our habits is to change our identity.

“The key to building lasting habits is focusing on creating a new identity first. Your current behaviors are simply a reflection of your current identity. What you do now is a mirror image of the type of person you believe that you are (either consciously or subconsciously).

To change your behavior for good, you need to start believing new things about yourself.” Says James (Yeah, we’re on a first name basis. It’s cool)

The best way to change your identity and therefore your behavior and your life, is to begin acting as if.

Even if you feel like you are faking it, over time it will become a part of who you are.

Just like we watch and judge others based on their actions, we watch and judge ourselves. Our brains do not like a disconnect between what we think and what we do. So if we start doing different things our brain will jump on board.

Research shows that smiling (even when we’re not happy) can make us happier. Looking into somebody’s eyes can make us like them more (why the hell would we be staring so deeply if not?). Lifting weights can lead to better nutrition (“I lift weights, I must be healthy our brain thinks). Pushing our plates away from us can cause us to eat less.

One of my favorites pieces of research is on attraction. Want to make somebody like you? Take them on a date hiking or going to a haunted house. Both of these activities create the same bodily response as attraction: sweaty palms, heart pounding, novelty, and excitement.

And when their brains are all worked up, they subconsciously associated these feelings with attraction towards you. Nice work, Romeo.

If you want to start feeling positive emotions and having positive thoughts, start with positive action. Start acting as if you already are what you want to become, and slowly, you will start to become just that.



A note on empathy: “Later, it would occur to Elliott that the blue eyes were much less nasty than the brown-eyed kids had been, perhaps because the blue-eyed kids had felt the sting of being ostracized and didn’t want to inflict it on their former tormentors.” Read more:

Clear, James. Tranform Your Habit: Learn How Psychology Makes It Easier For You To Live Healthy and Actually Stick To Your Goals

Wiseman, Richard. (2013) The As If Principle: The Radically New Approach to Changing Your Life. City, St: Simon and Schuster.



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