Prejudice: Why it's so easy to learn, and so difficult to erradicate

Let's face it: we all have prejudices.

Even if you're a member of the ACLU, defender of Civil Rights, you consider yourself a modern, open-minded, global citizen, you may still have some little prejudices that you might not be even aware of. But they are there.

And I'm not even talking about Race here. It can be a bias about sexual orientations, musical tastes, fashion, or even career choices!

Take me for instance: I hate bus drivers. HATE. THEM. But that's because I live in Mexico city, and I see the way they behave around here, disobeying the traffic laws, driving recklessly and causing many accidents. So I have a clear bias against bus drivers; some goes for cops for that matter.

So why is that? Why is it that it is so difficult to erradicate all these nasty prejudices that have caused so many wars and suffering since the dawn of time?

I've been thinking about it lately, and through one of my personal interests, I've come up with a theory that could help explain it. the personal interest I'm referring to is... Cartoons.

Yes, Cartoons! Let's do an experiment you & I: pick up a piece of paper and a pencil (it's all right if you don't think you can't draw, any human being can doodle), and now draw a circle or oval. Now draw two black circles in the upper middle part of the circle, and then draw a vertical line below those two circles right at the middle of them, and after that an horizontal line below the vertical one.

You can show your drawing to nearly every human being in the world, and they will say it is a "face".

Now, you could add a little black square below the vertical line that is the "nose", and a curve that goes from the top of the circle to the left, passing just above the "eye" of your doodle. Voila! You just turned your face into a Hitler caricature. Show your drawing to your friends or coworkers and I bet many if not most of them will recognize it as Hitler, even though we have only add two very simple features to our generic primitive face.

Isn't amazing how we humans can pick up these appearances with just the simplest and fewest of elements? It is my opinion that, in fact, this is the way our brain processes the world we live in.

You see, our senses are always picking up myriads of bits of information any given moment. Were our brain to interpret all this flood of info it would be a staggering job, not to mention highly inefficient—our primate ancestors would have been eaten by predators if they tried to interpret all the things perceived by their senses!

So I think that what our brain does is to look for shortcuts. Categorize and sort out the most prominent and relevant of information in the most efficient manner possible. Kind of making a "mental sketch" of the objects or scenes around us.

That's why when we meet a person for the first time we first pay atention to the most prominent features of his/her physical appearance: his nose may be slightly bigger than yours, or her lips may be thinner. His eyes might be closer together or her ears rounder. The moment we see someone for the first time our brain is making a mental sketch of that person, using the most prominent differences between that person and yourself as a point of reference; this mental sketch is then filed and stored, ready to be pulled out the moment we need it (i.e. when we meet the same person again, in order to recognize him/her).

And obviously, this must have been a very useful feature on ancient times, when recognizing someone as an outsider of the clan/tribe/village could be the difference between life and death.

These mental sketches are applied not only on visible physical attributes, but also on cultural ones too, and here's when things get a lot messier. We use the mental sketches to make a quick reference about how someone from another country or religion differs from you (e.g. "The French like to eat cheese", or "Muslims don't eat pork".

There's another name for the cultural mental sketches. We call them stereotypes.

And the thing about stereotypes is that, unlike the other mental sketches we've been discussing —that are based on direct first-hand experience— these ones can be transmitted or learned through many different cultural channels. They are learned from the most tender years, in the simplest forms, like jokes or table anecdotes. And with the use of technology, stereotypes can be more widely disseminated.

Soon the stereotypes are part of the psychological baggage of any person, and are a very big inffluence on how that person perceives the world around it.

And stereotypes can also be manipulated with a definite purpose in mind, by a person or group who seek a benefit from it. Such as starting a war or eliminating competition; many of history's tragedies are the result of twisted stereotypes (do I really need to give examples?)

So I think the first thing we have to do is acknowledge that, despite how useful our mental sketches sometimes are, they are nonetheless A LIE. Our own brain lies to us, it tries to give us a simplified version of the world, it tries to tell us that a circle with a couple of lines is a human face; but we must remember that no matter how smart we think we are, we never ever get a full picture of things.

Likewise with stereotypes. We can't use stereotypes to judge the feats and attributes of a single individual. that is completely unfair, not to mention stupid.

Maybe a person can never get rid of all its prejudices. They are like beasts that start small and cute, that we feed over the years until they become true monsters. So all we have to do is first admit we have them, and fight them every day of our lives.

We may never slay them, but I do believe the struggle itself yields its own rewards.

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fahim knight's picture
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22 December 2007
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Red Pill I think peoples prejudices originate from learned behavior, which is the basic definition of culture, coming from Auguste Comte, Max Weber, Émile Durkheim , etc., learned behavior is the foundation of culture in which if correlated with our socialization process, ordinarily this is how our worldview is shaped (good, bad and/or indifferent). People have this instinctive tribal motivation, which means I can associate with you, if we belong to the same race, ethnic origin, religion, same country club, same geographical location, speak the same language, etc. Thus, these "natural" instincts that unite and draws us to one another; is often some of the artificial barriers that divide us—sub-cultures evolve out of the dominant culture lack of ability to meet the inclusive and pluralistic aspirations of a so-called subordinate group. The word "prejudice" comes from the root word to prejudge which means: "to judge a person, issue, or case before sufficient evidence is available" I do think often this word is used a lot out of context. For example, the words Racism and Prejudice are used interchangeably. Prejudice towards something or someone, as far as making a determination without factual proof is reckless and outright wrong. Now! If someone commits a racist act towards me and I view it as racism, them I am not prejudging that person, but I am probably calling a spade, a spade. Your article draws attention to a higher level of spirituality and yet humanity is entrapped by our self-serving instincts—TRIBALISM, which defines human relations on the small and grand scale.

Stay Awake Until We Meet Again,
Fahim A. Knight-EL

red pill junkie's picture
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I agree that prejudices are a learned behavior; but what I intended to explain was that maybe the reason they're so easy to learn, believe and disseminate, is because they rely on a fundamental cognitive process: the mental sketches we draw in our minds based on a biased evaluation/categorization of the info gathered by our senses.

It's easier to go by thinking the caricatures in our brain are a true rendition of the world, but they're not. We must unlearn what we were taught.

We must refrain to cast judge before knowing as much of the facts as possible. Mabe that will help us to cast away our prejudices.

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It's all the rabbit SH*T you stumble over on your way down!!!

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earthling's picture
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Certainly prejudice is learned behavior. But why do people so seldom unlearn it, in favor of better judgement ?

I suspect it is because learning is work. And learning takes time. A lot of people don't want to learn twice. Once they have a method to do something, that is enough as long as it works some of the time. Or as long as they don't suffer an obvious (to them) disadvantage from their first and only method. And especially if the method does not require learning.

Look at some examples.

Most people are happy with 1 way to cook chicken. If they can't do it that way, they won't try another.

Most people get really upset if their bus routes change. Even when the new one is actually better.

When traveling from Detroit, Michigan to St. Petersburg, Florida (many students and retired people do that), most people find one way and stick with that for many years.

It doesn't matter how good or bad the first way something complex is that has been learned. Most people tend to stubbornly stick with it. I think it is because learning is work, and/or difficult.

I believe it is the same with judging other people. Judging other people is complex and difficult, so once people have found a way to do it, they don't want to learn another way. Especially not a new way that requires actually learning (that painful activity again) about that other person. Much easier to take shortcuts.

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It is not how fast you go
it is when you get there.

red pill junkie's picture
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People resist change, they're afraid of it.

There's an old saying in Spanish: "Más vale malo por conocido, que bueno por conocer", which could be translated as "Better the bad that is already known, that the good that is left to know".

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It's not the depth of the rabbit hole that bugs me...
It's all the rabbit SH*T you stumble over on your way down!!!

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Carol_Noble's picture
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Yes, prejudices are learned behaviour - the very word gives sway to this - Pre-jud(ge)-ices. We pre-judge what we do based on our own, or others, experiences. It is the way the brain works. We can't make any decision without being able to prejudge ie discriminate between things/people. If we can't make decisions then we can't function as individuals. The idea of prejudices/discriminations has become abhorent to some people based on other learned ideas such as it is wrong to discriminate on (race, colour, sex, religion, etc.) The emphasis then becomes the idea of discriminating at all, and by not discriminating we can't make decisions and will automatically accept any decision made by others in authority, even if they are the wrong decisions for us!!

How to unlearn is a different matter, and this is something we are not encouraged to do at all in our society. We are to become morons, robots, slaves, who exactly as they are told if they are to survive at all. We are worthless to the elite who wish to control us. That is my prejudice based on experiences I have had.

There may well be others within this elite group who care, who are helpful and considerate, but they are few and far between, and have to prove themselves to me if I am to accept what they say without question.

Carol A Noble

red pill junkie's picture
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A recent book mentions the concept of the Super Elite. 600 individuals that decide the future of the rest of humanity. Not surprisingly, many of those individuals are entertainers and pop stars.

And—even at the risk of call on the wrath of our good Rick— it may very well be that U2's leader Bono has the best of intentions when launching on campaigns to ask the western nations to donate money to Africa; but is there a follow-up on where the money ends up and how it is used? Could it be that the only thing accomplished is that corrupt African leaders are getting their pockets lined? Just because you're a great singer does not mean you are the most qualified individual to decide the fate of the Earth.

I'm getting a bit side-tracked here, but I guess this relates to the topic of prejudice, if we look at the way many ideas on how to save the world are being promoted. I've had my share of discussions with some members like my buddy Earthling and thiz_ho, about the seeming hypocrisy of the environmental movement, and I have had to agree that they do have a point to distrust some aspects of the "green" movement.

People need to go deeper and beyond the glossy label of things, and refuse to be indoctrinated in something without knowing well what it's all about. It is a pain in the neck, but no one said freedom was for free.

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It's not the depth of the rabbit hole that bugs me...
It's all the rabbit SH*T you stumble over on your way down!!!

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Carol_Noble's picture
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"People need to go deeper and beyond the glossy label of things, and refuse to be indoctrinated in something without knowing well what it's all about. It is a pain in the neck, but no one said freedom was for free."

You are right RPJ, people do need to go deeper into ideas and work out for themselves what is happening around them.

All of these worthy movements are being "hijacked" by the "fifth columnists" determined to destroy what is good and helpful. This is how the UK is being destroyed bit by bit, and all of its old reputations are being dragged into the sewer whilst the people are slowly being made "criminals" through stupid unnecessary rules yet the real anti-social criminals are allowed to literally get away with murder!

I am now prejudiced under your definition against the authority of my country. I don't want to be, and don't like being this way, but it is the only way I can find of dealing what the "scum" keep throwing at me. I only want to get on with my life, in my own way without harming anyone, but it seems that is not to be. Therefore, I am prejudiced, not against individuals or specific stereotypes of character/culture, but authority as a whole - until they prove themselves to me. I do my best to remain within the law but am very much aware as to how others will bend/break the laws. Prejudice is the only way I can maintain any sort of control of my life, and that control is systematically being stripped away.

red pill junkie's picture
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Oh yes, distrust of authority; the #1 characteristic of a true Grailer. #2 is the tinfoil hat ;-)

I may be rationalizing my own prejudice, but I do believe having a mild distrust of the true intentions of authority is a very healthy thing. Provided that we do our homework and not fall into the "They're all bad" closed-mindedness.

I have a deep resentment against politicians. But I do have to admit that thankfully they are notable exceptions to the rule. On of them was this man, Gilberto Rincón Gallardo, a brave politician that really tried to make a difference. All his life he struggled against adversity (he was a talidomide kid). He just recently passed away, and his absence is a great loss to Mexico.

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It's not the depth of the rabbit hole that bugs me...
It's all the rabbit SH*T you stumble over on your way down!!!

Red Pill Junkie

Richard's picture
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Here I go with a note of discord here.

Prejudice is not learned. It rather is a reaction to pressure against a program to which we identify and take to be our person.

Prejudice is a protection for ignorance. It protects ways of seeing things and it protects access to the types of thoughts one is ready to receive and to identify to.

A person is not prejudiced, fundamentally speaking. Prejudice is induced to create the reaction and maintain the psychological condition within a specified boundary.

Prejudice is like an anti-virus program that seeks and destroys data that does not conform to the main program function.

Carol_Noble's picture
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Richard

Whilst I can understand what you are saying, you are defining prejudice in a very limited way. Also prejudice is neither good nor bad in itself - our brains can't function effectively without it - but it changes its perspective and meaning due to other personal experiences.

It is an essential part of our functioning brain as we cannot keep all pieces of information to hand (we are not that good at mental juggling) so we need to have methods/processes in which we can reduce the items of information we are dealing with. Hence, pre-judge-ing information.

I appreciate that this can be flawed, and it should never be the only way in which we judge anything, but it can help us make decisions, and that is what it tries to do.

In recent times we have been encouraged to view words and ideas in one specific way - this is a form of stereo typing of word/idea definitions. This can lead to what I will term "erroneous" decisions being made, but it is up to the individual to find ways of making decisions that are not based purely on pre-judged-knowledge.

We all succomb to this form of prejudice, but it can be overcome, with practice.

I would add that I had to help my daughter learn how to make a decision, and it involved asking herself certain questions. Slowly she realised that some things can be determined by prejudiced thoughts and ideas and this helped her reduce her possible option to managable number. She is now very good at making decisions, and tries not to make too many prejudgements, but like everyone else she is only human, and can remember how difficult it can be to make decisions without the use of that mental tool - prejudice!

Carol A Noble

red pill junkie's picture
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Thanks for jumping in. Richard, you know I always welcome dissenting opinions, provided they always end up agreeing with me ;-)

I think the way you see prejudice is similar to what I tried to explain. To liken it to an anti-virus program; keeping with the Computing analogy, I would say that perhaps prejudice arises from an inherent "memory cache" in our brain, that tries to compress & store just a broad and crude set of information about a certain object, in keeping with the natural limits of our minds.

So for me, the problem arises when we give these broad "jpeg files" in our minds too much credit, that they actually represent a detailed picture of the world we live in. When in reality they're far from it.

And of course, a jpeg file can be corrupted to the point that the info becomes irretrievable...

So in that sense, I agree with Carol that in essence, a prejudice is not inherently good or bad in itself. It's just the way our minds work. Maybe if we come to understand that, we may be able to control the nasty prejudices that get too carried away and cause so much trouble in our society.

We need to re-educate ourselves.

I also like the audio analogy Carol makes. That often our society compels us to believe in "monoaural" (one-sided) views of a given argument; but any music lover knows it's best to listen to a song in stereo (i.e. hear BOTH sides of the argument).

There are some blogs I visit that help me accomplish this. Websites where intelligent people I respect write & comment, and have a VERY different world perspective from the one I hold; they are what an American would call a "conservative", and reading their comments helps me understand that there are very intelligent & nice people out there who vote Republican, and if we go beyond the Politics discourse I find I share many things in common with them.

It helps me keep some sort of balance, and to keep hearing the song of the world in stereo :)

-----
It's not the depth of the rabbit hole that bugs me...
It's all the rabbit SH*T you stumble over on your way down!!!

Red Pill Junkie

Richard's picture
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I don't staple prejudice as good or bad. I describe it as an invasion of the mind, like fear is an invasion.

The spirit fears nothing. It is the real identity. So, what is fear? We have adopted a false identity we call personality. And fear shapes it, the ego being such an insecure thing.

Likewise, prejudice shapes the way the ego views his environment. But the spirit, the real identity, has no prejudice. So, where does prejudice comes from?

So, I say that it is not prejudice that is learned but that prejudice teach the ego into a false identity, like fear and thoughts do.

See what I mean?

red pill junkie's picture
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Well, just barely as always :-P

But that's what I like about your comments. They take longer to digest, but they're worth the effort ;-)

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It's not the depth of the rabbit hole that bugs me...
It's all the rabbit SH*T you stumble over on your way down!!!

Red Pill Junkie

Carol_Noble's picture
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I thank you both for your comments and yet again they are thought provoking. I think that on the whole we are in agreement, with slight variances of position but nevertheless on the same side.

I can understand Richard's idea of fear, and if fear goes too far it can be destructive. But without fear we would never truly understand that we need to look, think and feel beyond ourselves. There are those people who have never learned what fear is, and therefore risk too much with little thought for the impact it will have on the world around them.

Yet again, fear, like prejudice, like discrimination, is an essential tool, but a tool nevertheless.

I am afraid of many things, even today, and I know that I am often being irrational, but much of what I have learned has started off as a fear which made me think again about what I was doing/thinking/saying. From that I hope that a lot of the time I have found a balanced way of interacting with life, but I won't say it is easy, and I admit it can become debilitating. But that is what being human is all about, and humans are flawed individuals who are trying to find ways of not only surviving but improving their lives.

Carol A Noble