Categorisation is a strategy our brains use to more efficiently process information. But this can lead to unwanted abstraction and unconscious biases.
Every individual, object and experience we encounter is different in some way – however we could not function if our brains perceived them that way. We don’t have the time, bandwidth or mental capacity to observe and consider every detail of every person and thing. So our brain maintains and retrieves categories that can accelerate our response and understanding to what we encounter.
This enables us to quickly determine that we are looking at a tiger (that our brain may categorise as a dangerous carnivore) and should run, or that the person we’re having a conversation with is a friend, the object with four legs and a bench top is a table and is made to eat from and so on.
Our brains categorise people, experiences, objects, language in very sophisticated ways, so that we can quickly and efficiently make sense of what we are seeing or doing. This categorisation can sort through quite subtle differences: for instance we know that a Dachshund and a German Shepherd are both dogs, despite them being quite different. When we look at two Dachshunds, however, we will know they are both the same breed, but may fail to notice variations between them, such as one being slightly longer than the other, etc.
This is the down side of categorisation. If we do not pay attention, we may fail to notice or remember the detail and differences between what we observe. This means we may perceive people or things within one group as more similar than they really are, and those in different groups as less similar than they really are.
Our unconscious minds transform fuzzy differences and subtle nuances into distinct differences. This can assist us navigate our environment more easily. It can also cause difficulties and harm to ourselves or others.
The term ‘stereotype’ was coined in 1794 by a French printer, Firmin Didot to refer to a type of printing that produced duplicate plates, newspapers and books. The idea was adopted in early film making where films often depicted people using caricatures – ‘character actors’ who could be easily identified in silent movies. These caricatures amplified and exaggerated character traits of particular people: an Italian organ grinder, a damsel in distress, a New York Jew, banker, doctor, etc.
When we assess people based on a stereotype or according to the category our unconscious minds make (often based on the images we’ve internalised through popular media, our cultural backgrounds and upbringing) we make errors of judgement and create unconscious bias. For example, research confirms that most of us will assess a person wearing dirty scrappy clothes as a potential thief rather than a person dressed in smart clean clothes. Likewise, most people, regardless of their race, are more likely to feel alarm when approached by a large black man than we would by a large white man. Many are appalled that they hold such attitudes – but it is difficult to avoid not being influenced by a culture that embodies negative stereotypes about different groups of people.
Even those who champion the underprivileged were not immune from unconscious bias: ‘Ours is one continued struggle against the degradation sought to be inflicted upon us by Europeans who desire to degrade us to the level of the raw Kaffir [black African]… whose sole ambition is to collect a certain number of cattle to buy a wife with, then pass his life in indolence and nakedness.’ Mahatma Gandhi.
‘The Negro is indolent and lazy and spends his money on frivolities whereas the European is forward-looking organised, and intelligent.’ Che Guevara – who left his country to pursue the emancipation of the poor.
Our mind’s tendency to categorise creates a perceptual bias and lies at the root of prejudice and discrimination. It is not something we should feel ashamed of or rationalise away. It is just how our brains work and it is up to each of us to pay attention to our own particular biases and ensure we do not act upon them.
Research has shown that we can ameliorate the impact of unconscious bias by paying attention. If we are aware of our unconscious bias and motivated to overcome it, we can, but it requires effort and awareness.
We all have examples of holding a biased view about a particular group of people which was overcome with actual knowledge and experience by spending time with a group.
Last year I spent 3 days in a retirement village because I wanted to spend time with a friend who had just moved there. My biased view was that people in retirement homes were too sick or incapacitated to live independently and could not be expected to contribute much. My bias was completely overcome with exposure to a group of vivacious, intelligent people who were frail and require additional physical care, but they were also writing books, contributing to their communities and participating to various causes despite these frailties.
The more time we spend with different people the more we become aware of their actual personalities and differences. The more we interact with individuals and are exposed to their particular qualities, the more ammunition our minds have to counteract our tendency to stereotype – for the traits we assign to categories are products, not just of society’s assumptions but of our own experience.
With acknowledgement and thanks to Leonard Mlodinow for his book: ‘Subliminal. How your unconscious mind rules your behaviour.’