Why Our Brains Discriminate (And What We Can Do About It)

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How is it that humans have the capacity for deeds of horrific violence as well as acts of astounding self-sacrifice? What is it that provokes a person to enter a community of worship and commit murder, or empowers another person to discriminate against an innocent civilian because of the color of their skin? These issues are emotionally charged, and rightfully so, but step back for a moment with me and consider the mental patterns of discrimination. Therein lies some answers and solutions for addressing discrimination as a society.

Discrimination

 

Why we discriminate

Our brains are built to discover and learn patterns. This ability enables us to function efficiently within a complex society, adapting, surviving, and thriving. It is imperative our brain be adept at identifying differences and we cannot fully prevent our brain from detecting differences, nor should we, but it does not follow that discrimination, in its most damaging forms, is a necessary part of society. Our brain is programmed to keep us alive and help us achieve our goals by conserving energy and building repetitive behaviors. It does so by finding and recording patterns of differences and similarities. It is constantly evaluating the world around us, scanning changes in the environment and making minute adjustments to gain advantages or minimize hazards as a result. Whether you intend to or not, your brain is constantly assessing the people you encounter, ever wary of threat.
Suppose you are standing at a bus stop with another person you do not know. In a matter of seconds, your brain can calculate their size, apparent strength, body structure, outward appearance, facial expression, and attire, without your permission. You will notice if they carry a threatening object, such as a knife, or if their mannerisms are inconsistent with the context, such as appearing nervous, secretive, or angry. These instincts are often more vital than we realize, and going on behind the curtains even as we might be checking messages on our cell phone.
Not only does our brain look for data patterns in the world around us, it compares them against existing data–you and your experience. Are you taller than the man next to you? Could he best you in a scuffle? Is he smarter? Is he faster? Is he wealthier? Like it or not, your brain will begin making educated guesses at the answers to these questions, applying heuristic thinking to your current situation–meaning that the brain takes existing knowledge and known rules (which may or may not be relevant to the current circumstances) and attempts to draw conclusions. It guesses. Sometimes it guesses right. Sometimes it is very, very wrong.
An example of heuristics might be assuming that when a person cries they must be sad. Sad people cry, therefore crying people are sad. We know this is not always true, but your brain will serve that assumption up to you, attempting to draw quick conclusions to avoid unnecessary thinking. To discriminate is to make a judgment call based on differences or similarities. You discriminate every day, though most of the time it has nothing to do with race or gender. You make incorrect assumptions based on differences resulting in less than desirable results on a daily basis. It can be as innocuous as buying a pink object for a girl because you believe girls like pink, or because you personally like pink and assume they do also. Your decision is based on general rules applied to an individual who might have no interest in pink. You made an unjust judgment, however well-meaning. It can also be something catastrophic, as witnessed during the holocaust, where millions of people were oppressed and killed because they were different and assumed to be of lesser value. Discrimination will never go away, but I do believe it can be curbed and immensely lessened, as I will point out further on.

Yours, Mine, and Ours

Delving deeper into the “why” behind discrimination, there is another compelling reason our brains evaluate differences. Our brain is not content to survive, we want to thrive. We want to dominate. We want to possess. By rising to the top of our environment, we insure our safety and that of our family. We not only seek to detect threats, we are competitive by nature, possessive of what we perceive as ours, and ambitious for what we believe should or could be ours. This requires us to detect patterns in the world around us for two related reasons: to protect what we have and to get more. We dislike change unless it is in our favor. When change is in our favor, we attribute it to luck or say we are blessed, when it is not, we call it unlucky or refer to it as a problem. Consequentially, we are naturally very defensive. When cut off in traffic, we have an immediate mental and physical reaction. You may not act outright, but your brain throws up flags and alarms go off, sending signals out to your body–tension, fear, anger, aggression. Someone is attempting to take what is yours. Your brain is intolerant of such things. It registers a threat. Perceived threats actually create physical discomfort in your body, even if you have misinterpreted your environment and are in no real harm. When you perceive threat, even where none exists, it changes how you think and act. When you, your family, friends, lifestyle, possessions, or values are threatened, your brain logs this threat and looks for patterns. What threatened you? When? In what way? If this is a powerful enough threat, or happens with enough frequency, your brain will find the patterns, record the circumstances, and build a mental defense system to prevent future threats. So long as threat exists, your brain will opt for aggressive defensive action over meaningful contemplation.

The inequality of discrimination

While it is true that most of the population has experienced discrimination of some sort, it is also true that discrimination is not equal across all races and genders. As a white male, I know what it feels like to be discriminated against from my perspective, but I do not know what it is like to be a black male and be discriminated against, nor do I know what it is like to be gay or to be a woman and be discriminated against. I can sympathize, but when I assume our experiences are the same, I am thinking heuristically, applying a set of rules which might work for one situation onto a completely different situation. Never would I posit that I know what it feels like to be a black male. I do not. I have spoken to many black males, listened to many stories of discrimination, yet I am still a white male with my own unique set of experiences. I would be deceived to think I can even speak for all white males. I cannot. Circumstances, environment, and personal differences make each situation unique. I do not believe this prevents us from addressing the issue as a society, but it is an undeniable truth we must accept if we are to address the issue of discrimination intelligently. You don’t know how others feel. You don’t understand what it’s like to be them.

Things you need to know about your brain

  1. Your brain lies – Your brain already has well-developed habits; some of them useful, and some of them crap. Once you have developed a pattern of seeing things a certain way, your brain will bias your thinking that direction. This is scientifically proven. We think other people agree with us more than they do. We perceive things that are not there. We conclude incorrectly. When we refuse to think twice–to reconsider other points of view–we are likely to apply the wrong set of rules to the situation, drawing a false conclusion, which results in poor judgment. You think you are right. You think you are justified. Your intentions are good. But none of that matters if it is all based on incorrect conclusions. Solution: Think twice. Reject the temptation to react or jump to conclusions. Ask. Listen. Apply new information.
  2. Your brain competes – You are constantly looking for ways to one-up the next guy. Your brain wants you to be better, stronger, smarter, and more successful. For the most part, this is a very useful function of the brain, but when it sets you against other people unnecessarily, it becomes an obstacle to community. Solution: Mind contentment. Seek to contribute rather than withhold. Seek to encourage rather than overtake. Seek to share rather than protect. Approach life from a place of abundance and generosity, rather than deficit and greed.
  3. Your actions alter your beliefs – Your brain does not do well holding two opposing ideas as truth. It’s called cognitive dissonance, and your brain attempts to resolve this by aligning one thing with another. It is easier to shift belief than to change an ingrained habit. If you repeat habits you believe are inappropriate, you will eventually become more tolerant of them, adopting them as acceptable, thus shifting your belief system to match your actions. Addressing something like discrimination requires proper action aligned to solid healthy belief. Solution: Take positive action often and intentionally. If you form habits of ignoring the problem or excusing it away, you will eventually shift your beliefs to justify your own lack of involvement in the solution, however, if you make it a habit to pursue positive action, you will strengthen and build beliefs that support a solution.
  4. You are not your brain – Your patterns today do not have to be your patterns tomorrow. Research shows that up to half of our average day consists of performing habitual actions–actions we give little thought to and do not directly reflect our current values, but are simply ingrained patterns. You can change, and you are not the sum of your habits. You can form new patterns more consistent with your goals. You can change. Solution: Evaluate your personal patterns. Force yourself to reconsider your current stance on issues. Be intentional, rather than bowing to previous patterns.

New Patterns

Being aware of how our brain works, and that we cannot wholly change that, what can we do on a personal and social level to reduce the damage of discrimination? We must learn new patterns. We must allow our brain to repeatedly engage in positive experiences with people who are different than us, forming memories of safety and support that accompany deviations in skin color, gender, etc. Here are some ways I believe that can happen.

1. Proactive engagement

Once the brain perceives a high level of threat, rational long-term thinking becomes difficult if not impossible. To postpone dealing with issues, such as discrimination, is to invite disaster, priming a society for volatile events that will bring about discussion and change radically, even violently. To preempt discrimination issues, we as a society must make differences part of the conversation. Conversation needs to happen on a practical level within local communities on a regular basis. I do not propose we agitate an issue before it becomes a problem, rather that we actively engage in discussing and understanding both the advantages and challenges of our differences. For example, women should be able to speak of being a woman, and of the unique and necessary position of womanhood in society, with equal dignity. When it becomes safe and accepted to have a conversation about color, gender, lifestyle, or whatever else may differentiate you from someone else, we can begin to understand one another and how best to meet the needs of our fellow human. Proactive engagement builds patterns of trust and honesty within society, enabling constructive debate resulting in change and negating the need for violent protests or drastic actions.

2. Recognize differences

Differences exist. Not only should we not ignore them, we should embrace them. Our brains will find them, and it is ludicrous to suggest we turn a blind eye to them. There is no need for me to be ashamed of the difference between me and you. My color, my gender, my heritage–these are tied up in my identity, none of which I had a choice in anyway. In the quest for “equality”, it is tempting to treat everyone the same. I do not believe that is a viable solution. We are not the same, we are different. Not only are women different than men, one woman is different from another. Our differences are our strengths and part of our value proposition as an individual.
I can recall being on an escalator in Manila. A young girl, about five years old, was riding in front of me, holding her mother’s hand. When she turned and saw me, her face lit up and she whispered, almost with awe, “American?”. I smiled and nodded. She turned to her mother and began to tug her arm excitedly. “American! American!” she said, pointing at me in delight. Her mother was understandably embarrassed and tried to quiet her down, chastising her outburst. I found it humorous, even endearing. She saw I was different, and the difference excited her. Are you excited to experience differences? Are you open to acknowledging them? Are you willing to discuss them? Until you are, important conversations will continue to be deflected or ignored entirely. Your brain sees the difference. So should you. Referring to someone by their gender or their color should never be a criticism. It is a form of identification, and useful information that our brain will automatically register, however vehemently we deny it.

3. Reject assumptions

If there is one thing that concerns me more than anything else in the discrimination debate, it is the assumptions. When you assume that because something applies to your situation it also applies to other situations involving other people, you will be less inclined to investigate, question, and listen. You will make blanket judgment calls that are unjust. This is difficult to counteract, because our brains need to make quick judgment calls in many instances, but, when the rights of another human being are involved, we must be willing to think twice. When we repeatedly consider the diversity and uniqueness of people around us, not just in terms of race or gender, but also personal experiences and circumstances, we build patterns of consideration. It is harder to think than to assume. It takes concerted mental effort to consider people individually. We must reject the quick, easy path of assumptions and take the longer, harder road of investigation. We must pause, listen, and accept the diversity present in society.

4. Cultivate supportive communities

I first wrote “cultivate safety”, because only in the absence of threat can we begin suppressing the aggressive reactions our brain is programmed to make, however, I think mere safety is not enough. Safety is important, but still borders on danger. Beyond keeping people safe, we must offer support to one another. When we feel our way of life or well-being is threatened, our brain will begin triggering defensive mechanisms that prevent productive discussion and collaborative effort. When cornered, we are not rational–we are not fair. We are selfish and violent. Only within a safe and supportive environment can our brain best contemplate and discern new truths and helpful solutions. We must not avoid one another and simply let each other be, we must cultivate genuine support in diverse communities, interacting with each other in positive ways and building patterns that teach our brain the benefits of those around us rather than the dangers.

5. Embrace humility

I am going to take an unexpected route here. I could easily insert the importance of personal pride at this point, and it would seem good advice, but stay with me. It is my belief that humans are made in the image of God, each one of divine importance, valuable beyond measure simply by virtue of being. Whatever your personal belief, it is important for you to embrace your self-worth if you wish to contribute to mitigating discrimination. You are valuable. You are important. So am I. I do not believe all people contribute equally to a society, but I do believe all people deserve the same basic level of respect, and I am one of those people. Just as an item of value is likely to be taken when left unattended, your own value is likely to be taken for granted if you do not attend to it. Why then do I say embrace humility rather than pride? Why should we not then revel in our great worth? Consider this: as I pointed out earlier, your brain is competitive. It is defensive. It seeks to promote you, even if that comes at the cost of others. To minimize the self-promoting habits your brain already engages in, it is beneficial to move your gaze beyond your own best interest. Thinking of ourselves is easy–instinctual. We rarely need to practice that skill. Thinking more highly of others, however, is much less common. We can greatly reduce the impact of our defense system and aggressive competitive nature by embracing not only our own great worth, but the great worth of those about us. It is not possible to do one properly without the other, but it is my personal habit to consider the feelings of another before my own as often as possible. Not that I do not consider my own feelings, but I attempt to make less of myself and more of them, speak less and listen more, boast less and compliment more, building patterns of respect and appreciation for others, while still appreciating myself. Embrace your worth, but, having done so, strive further to humble yourself intentionally, esteeming highly the worth of others. If this could be applied on a universal level, discrimination would cease.

Conclusion

It is not my habit to address cultural issues. Primarily, my interest is empowering people to live at the highest level of meaning through intentional choices. However, given the gravity of current events, I was compelled to wade into the fray from an angle I know well. These discussions must be had. These issues must be repeatedly brought to light. Societal change is often painfully slow, but it can be accelerated, and I believe the best way to do so is for individuals within the society to adopt values and take actions that are loving and just, regardless of what governing bodies or organizations do. Eventually, the individual level changes will become organizational changes and governmental changes, because every organization and government is made up of individuals. I am encouraged when I consider that you and I are not so different fundamentally, and yet we are so very different in vast and wonderful ways.

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