The Human Brain and Prejudice

The Human Brain and Prejudice
One of the characteristics that makes the human brain function at a more sophisticated level than other species, is that our brain can very quickly and efficiently categorize our perceptions and experiences into familiar categories. From early childhood through adulthood, our brains are “hard-wired” to put into “boxes” similar perceptions/experiences. For example, we each have a “box” for various colors/shapes/sizes; what we like and don’t like; who is “nice” and who is “not nice”; etc. Therefore, our thinking processes are simplified by our perceptions/experiences automatically becoming categorized. This is called “Assimilation”; so new perceptions/experiences are assimilated into existing “boxes”.
When we have a brand new perception or experience, our brain then creates a new “box”. This is called “Accommodation”; so our brain is accommodating new types of information. This new box then becomes another area for storing similar perceptions/experiences.  

There is, however, a "down side" to Assimilation and Accommodation! This very same brain mechanism has much to do with the creation of prejudices. A few days ago, during a conference coffee break, someone was speaking to me. This person had a style of speaking and mannerisms that led me to think she was not terribly bright. Within a short moment, my inner thoughts then judged her and made additional conclusions about her. As it tuned out, I was dead wrong; she was a very bright and a delightful person. What had happened was that her mannerisms had touched on “boxes” in my brain that judged her to be a certain way. Had I not had further contact with her, I would have been holding onto very wrong conclusions. Similarly, as each of us progress through our lives, our brain creates more and more “boxes” to simplify our lives. So, my brain may “scan” how someone else “seems”, and may judge them to be “nice”, hardworking, lazy, “weird”, etc. The automatic next step is that I then respond to that person according to these judgments. The good thing is that we can often halt this auto-pilot function and check to see if it is true or not true. I am dismayed with myself as I find out how very often this auto-pilot analysis of others or their intentions is wrong. This has been a humbling experience for me.

In the big picture, I think the brain’s tendency to assimilate and accommodate our perceptions/experiences is tremendously positive; but with it comes the social responsibility of checking its accuracy.

©Shelley Uram 2011