Understanding Prejudice
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Teacher's Corner
College Classroom Activities

Segregation Dynamics


To show how even mild affiliative preferences at the individual level can lead to surprisingly strong patterns of segregation at the group level, without any intentional desire or plan for segregation.

Materials and Equipment

This classroom activity requires:

  1. An overhead projector

  2. An overhead transparency slide showing a checkboard grid with the squares numbered 1-64 (click here to view or download a sample)

  3. 25 small gasket rings that create "O's" when placed on a square

  4. 30 tile spacers that create "X's" when placed on a square.

Most hardware stores sell small gaskets and bags of plastic spacers (normally used to create grout lines when laying cermaic tiles). Other objects, such as pennies and paperclips, can also be used.


Before class begins, arrange 30 "X's" (the majority) and 25 "O's" (the minority) in a random pattern on the checkboard so that 55 squares are covered and the remaining 9 squares are free.


Turn on the projector and tell students to imagine that the checkboard is a community of 55 families and 9 unoccupied houses. Explain that for purposes of the demonstration, a square's "neighborhood" consists of the squares adjacent to it (8 squares for interior houses, 5 squares for houses on the edge, and 3 squares for houses in a corner position).

Then tell students that:

  • Each "O" wants to live in a neighborhood with at least two other minority neighbors (a very modest preference).

  • Each "X" wants to live in a neighborhood where most of its neighbors are majority members (again, a fairly modest preference -- not a desire to live in an all-majority neighborhood).

In other words, if an "O" has fewer than 2 other "O's" next to it, the "O will be unhappy and want to move. Likewise, if the pieces surrounding an "X" are not mostly "X's," the "X" will want to move.

Then appoint a student to move unhappy pieces onto squares that will make them happy, and invite the rest of the class to call out moves (e.g., "Move the X on square 34 to square 17"), continuing until all pieces are happy.

In most cases, the end result will be a pattern of extreme segregation, even if students have a desire for integration.


If time permits, you may wish to vary "X" and "O" preferences to see how the results change (e.g., by having "O's" prefer to be near 3 other "O's rather than 2). You might also encourage students to use pennies and dimes to experiment outside of class with different minority-majority ratios and decision rules, reporting any interesting findings to the class next time.

Web-Based Version

If you have an Internet connection and classroom projector, you can show students an interactive web-based version of this demonstration entitled Can You Avoid Segregation? One advantage of the web-based version is that trials can be completed more quickly, thereby giving you time to run through multiple trials or change the settings to show how certain factors affect the outcome. In addition, the web-based version illustrates how the dynamic can be reversed to create integration rather than segregation.

Still another possibility is to assign students to go through the web-based version on their own and write a brief reaction paper on: (1) what the results mean, and (2) how the results might be used to reduce segregation in daily life.


The lesson here is not to say that segregation is accidental -- merely that mild preferences at the individual level can lead to unanticipated or undesirable results at the societal level. More generally, the results show students that their personal preferences matter and can play a role in creating social patterns that they may not prefer, such as self-segregated campus dining areas.


Adapted from Chapter 4 (pp. 137-166) of Schelling, T. C. (1978). Micromotives and Macrobehavior. New York: W. W. Norton and Company.

See also Rauch, J. (2002, April). Seeing around corners. The Atlantic, pp. 35-48.