Steve McEllistrem

The Devereaux Dilemma

Why We Stereotype & Why It Matters

The world is complicated – that’s hardly news. But it’s important to recognize that fact because our brains don’t like a complicated world. They want a world that makes sense, a world that follows patterns we’re capable of understanding.

This is why we discriminate and stereotype and generalize all the time. We witness a new thing and immediately wonder if that thing is common or rare. If it’s common, we can sort of forget about it, tuck it away in a corner of our mind to be brought out only when something outside the norm happens.

You see, our brains are lazy. They want to save energy for when they’re truly needed. Psychologists have found that when we stereotype and generalize, we actually learn better.

Why?

Because our brains don’t have to work so hard at determining how to place the events or people we have pre-judged. By sparing our brains from determining whether doctors are caring, neo-nazis are aggressive and angry, and engineers like puzzles, we open our brains to learning things that are completely new.

However, these assumptions we make about the world are often wrong. We assume old people are forgetful. We assume teenagers are reckless. But these are not universal truths. Some teenagers are not reckless, while some old people are not forgetful (although I can’t remember if I know any).

So even though these assumptions can be helpful, they must be utilized with caution. They must be pulled out and re-examined every so often to determine if they’re still valid. Some of us, for example, think more clearly in the morning. Some of us do better at night.

If we’re tasked with solving a problem in the morning and we do better at night, we have a poorer chance of solving the problem than someone who is a “morning thinker.” But if our jobs require us to work mornings, we’re fighting our strengths every day.

Consider our preference for all things natural – natural foods, natural fibers, natural flavorings. We assume that natural items are better than those that are processed or enhanced by chemicals or genetic manipulation. But is that true?

Actually, not so much.

We have modified virtually every plant and animal we eat. In the ancient past, this process took years or even decades. We sought out species with desirable qualities and enhanced those qualities by selective breeding. We still do the same thing.

Only now, we don’t have to wait years to breed blight-resistant wheat or salmon with resistance to a specific disease. We manipulate their genes. The result is the same, but the process is much faster.

There are, of course, potential risks in the new processes. Some of the manipulation might not work if it were done the old-fashioned way. The plants or animals might die of some disease that could be transmitted to us. But if those species survive the genetic manipulation and grow to be healthy specimens, the likelihood of adverse consequences in humans is extremely small.

So what’s really going on?

We have a preference for the natural that goes back many thousands of years. It is largely a fear of change, a fear of the new and different, a generalization passed down from earlier editions of humanity. But we don’t admit that. We instead rationalize our preference by stating that it’s better for the environment and morally superior.

This matters because until we understand the truth, we will continue to assign arbitrary values to the choices we (and others) make. Our brains will continue to generalize and discriminate and stereotype because that’s what they want to do. The natural will continue to be the preferred state over the recently created.

Our brains love it when the world makes sense, when it’s simple and understandable and capable of being sorted into a system that allows them to be lazy. But the world isn’t simple. And if we can wrap our brains around that, we can better face the challenges it offers us.

From war to disease to pollution, the more we understand the complexities involved, the better our chances of stepping back, examining the problems, and taking small, concrete steps toward solving them.

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