Perception, Paradigms and Prejudice

We tend to view prejudice as an evil philosophy, as a nasty habit of narrow-minded hatred for those that are in some way different, as a self-serving attitude of blame put on others that allows the bigot to feel superior or escape responsibility for their own sorry situation. But what if prejudice is something very different? What if prejudice is something more basic and more universal? What if it is far more widespread and insidious than is commonly acknowledged? We cannot combat bigotry effectively if it is something that we cannot recognize, if it is something so slippery that it may have slipped into our own thoughts.
August 6, 2002; November 17, 2004

I am not a psychologist, nor a sociologist. I have watched people carefully through the years, and I believe that I have some insights about how we understand the world around us, about why we believe some of what we do believe, and how these two affect each other. I also believe that all of us have a tendency to develop prejudices, a tendency that is universal, a tendency that results from how our minds work and from our instinctual behaviour. Does the idea bother you that you could be prone to prejudice? Well, let me explain why I think we all might be before you reject the idea out of hand. After all, if you truly have an open mind, then considering these ideas shouldn't trouble you.


My first "insight" derives from my deuteranomalous colour-deficient vision, commonly called red-green colourblindness. The significant aspect of this condition is not the mechanics of my colour perception, rather it is the psychological factors that become apparent due to the limitation of my vision, and it is these psychological factors that make the experience of colourblindness so difficult to explain to people.

As a child I would tell people that I was colourblind. Often, particularly if I was talking to other children, I would get asked a quick series of "What colour is this?" questions, after which my interrogator would conclude emphatically, "You're not colourblind!"

"But," I would explain to those who had not lost interest, "It's not that I can't see any colours, or even that I can't see one particular colour, just that I tend to confuse certain colours, particularly red and green." Very often another round of queries about colours would follow with another assertion that I was lying. That would usually end the conversation. Why, when I experienced so many incidents of confusing colours, did this never happen when people asked me to identify colours for them? Here's where the psychological factors come into play. Although the answer is simple, it is not intuitive. In fact, the answer didn't come to me until my daughter was learning to read. Her mother and I were impressed at how well she could read and at so young an age, but when she got to school we were told she had problems reading. How could this be? Well, my daughter had memorized all of her favorite books, so when we asked her to read them, she would recite each page, but never read a word. I think that I do the same with colours. Leaves are green, cherries are red... but show me a tree filled with ripe cherries and I can't distinguish them from the leaves except by shape.

This effect goes far beyond memory, however. When I see cherries, they are red. When I see leaves, they are green. I think that this effect is similar to that experiment where people are given glasses that turn the world upside-down, and the people wearing these glasses eventually see the world rightside-up after a period of adjustment. That is, all my life I've had red described to me as this fiery, vibrant colour, so my mind associates this with the things that I know to be red.

My conclusion from all of this is that we edit our perceptions according to our understanding. If that is the case, what are the implications for what we perceive? Are the things we see modified to fit our understanding of the world around us? I think that there is plenty of evidence that this is so.


If people aren't directly aware of their environs, if they comprehend what they perceive in part based on their understanding of what they are perceiving, then they must need to maintain a model in their minds of what "reality" is like—a paradigm. For most people, most of the time, this model is an unconscious thing. When events occur to upset the basic assumptions of that model, we are deeply disturbed, even disoriented or shocked. We then need to understand what has happened and work the disturbing event into our models. Over generations, these models are handed down, although they are constantly being revised as well. These traditions of understanding are partially encapsulated in our language, partially taught through formal education, and are partially captured in our philosophies and religions.

It might be a natural conclusion that prejudice is part of that traditional knowledge among some groups, that all that is needed is to educate people out of these old and erroneous ways of thinking, and probably in some cases this is true. But there is more to prejudice than just problematic traditions. Part of how we humans think is that we generalize about things. Keeping a model in our minds that encompasses every detail of our understanding and experience would be an unwieldy thing, but maintaining a set of generalizations about similar things is much more efficient and useful. It is more useful in that generalizations allow us to develop the capacity to manipulate a situation. For example, a generalization about how temperatures and pressures affect the behaviour of gases allows us to develop refrigeration and steam and combustions engines. This natural proclivity to generalize is an important part of humans' intellectual abilities, but it is a natural tendency that causes us problems when we generalize about groups of people. When we generalize about groups of people, we create stereotypes that rob people of their individuality and result in unfair treatment when the generalization doesn't match a particular individuals beliefs or actions. Because we all have a tendency to generalize, we all have the potential to be prejudicial, but even this is not the full story on prejudice.

We humans also have an instinctual framework, in large part encoded in our emotional makeup, that is the basis of our social nature. For example, loneliness causes us to seek membership and acceptance in a social group. Beyond acceptance, we also exhibit a tendency to seek superior status within those groups, be it through a desire to be loved, feared, respected, or admired. Part of the process of establishing acceptance and status within a group is developing an identification with the group (a sense of "us"). The obverse aspect of this identification is that we tend to also develop a sense of disregard, mistrust, and even suspicion about groups that we see as disagreeing with the values of our group (a sense of "them"). When we mix in our tendency to form generalizations, we tend to create disparaging generalizations of the opposing group and glorifying generalizations about our own group. The classic example in the experience of Western civilization being the Nazis vs. the Jews, but any conflict between social groups shows a similar pattern of behaviour: Palestinians vs. Israelis, Christian vs. homosexuals, feminists vs. men, and even Americans vs. Canadians (ever listened to Mike Bullard's US vs. Canada jokes, or Molson's "I am Canadian" commercials?). These perceptions of "us, the good, noble, or cool" vs. "them, the evil, offensive, or pathetic" provides the emotional motivation for prejudice.


To summarize then, as human beings, our emotional makeup leads us to develop group identities, a part of which is developing a sense of groups that we oppose, or which oppose us, or which disagree with our values. With our intellectual tendency to generalize, we then tend to form positive stereotypes about our own group and negative stereotypes about groups to which we are opposed. These beliefs begin to affect our interpretation of what we perceive, thus reinforcing our beliefs. Finally, we can teach these stereotypes to our children and to our peers in our social groups.

So, how does this understanding of prejudice mean that we are all prejudiced? Well, if prejudices are more than just the nasty attitudes taught to the children of specific bigoted groups of people, that is, if we all have a propensity to develop stereotypes, then educating those nasty traditions out of existence is not enough. We also have to examine our own thinking and conduct on a regular basis.

Do you think that you are not prejudiced because your beliefs are in line with recognized political correctness? Well, here's a little test for you. Have you ever used the words "redneck" or "trailer trash"? How about "bridge and tunnel people"? Have you ever described what men or women are like in a way that you wouldn't want to be described yourself? Have you ever spoken of what the people of a certain nationality, culture, social or religious group are like, even if you were trying to be nice? I think that we all do some of this from time to time. We need to understand that prejudice won't disappear until we all recognize that each of us are capable of it, and that we must watch for it in ourselves constantly.—AJJ