Human Nature = Prejudice


Shankar Vedantam

In “Living in a Post-Racist Society,” Tina Dupuy outlines the absurdity in believing racism is dead just because most bigots won’t admit to their own bigotry. Apparently not even the Klan admits racism. But is such delusional thinking common, or even normal?

Yes. Shankar Vedantam’s The Hidden Brain, How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars, and Save Our Lives cites experiments demonstrating that humans are naturally prejudiced. Even toddlers pre-judge unfamiliar-looking people as “bad.” Tell the toddlers a story where the “others” are the heroes, and they benefits from that heroism, and the toddlers reverse those roles if asked to retell the same story.

Atul Gawande goes even further, citing enlightenment philosophy and modern science (in The Itch): “The images in our mind are extraordinarily rich. We can tell if something is liquid or solid, heavy or light, dead or alive. But the [nerve-supplied] information we work from is poor—a distorted, two-dimensional transmission with entire spots missing. So the mind fills in most of the picture. You can get a sense of this from brain-anatomy studies. If visual sensations were primarily received rather than constructed by the brain, you’d expect that most of the fibres going to the brain’s primary visual cortex would come from the retina. Instead, scientists have found that only twenty per cent do; eighty per cent come downward from regions of the brain governing functions like memory. Richard Gregory, a prominent British neuropsychologist, estimates that visual perception is more than ninety per cent memory and less than ten per cent sensory nerve signals.” [emphasis added]

Therefore, pre-judging even something so basic as a tree falling in the forest is as natural as, well, seeing it fall. This means prejudice is essential to even perception, never mind effective, timely action. Yet prejudice necessarily relies on assumptions, not present reality, going so far as to reconstruct reality to agree with those assumptions.

Prejudice often trumps facts. Says Vedantam: “People feel safer barreling down a highway at seventy miles an hour–without seat belts–than they do sitting in a passenger plane going through turbulence. The fact that we are in control of the car gives us the illusion of safety, even though all the empirical evidence shows we are safer in the plane.
[One gun safety study] identified nine deaths … where people shot and killed an intruder. These are the stories that gun advocates endlessly relate to one another. In the same period, guns in people’s homes were implicated in twelve accidental deaths and forty-one homicides–usually family members shooting, one another. The number of suicides? Three hundred and thirty-three.”

Obviously our feelings of safety if we are at the wheel, or have our finger on the trigger, are exaggerated, even delusional.

Nevertheless, Vedantam suggests education, rather than confrontation, is what gets us beyond prejudice. The Obama presidential run ignored the obviously bigotry coming from his opponent’s proxies, and suggested, without recrimination, that we give Obama a chance. That tactic, not Reverend Wright’s understandable anger, was what worked.

So the next time we see bigotry, if we want to get beyond escalating the mutual provocation, our job is to educate, not condemn the bigots. Given how often bigotry is at the root of wars, and other harmful activities, it’s no understatement to say that the survival of the human race may depend on our ability to set aside judgment and invite mutual discovery. It’s not easy to remember that the people we address still remain, at heart, all-too-human, but now that we know prejudice is natural, perhaps we can find the courage to address their humanity rather than fighting with the infantile thinking that brought them to promote prejudice as the last word.

Adam Eran

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *