Outsmarting Prejudice

Whether subtle or serious, prejudice gone awry can have harmful consequences.

I recently learned about a simple strategy for disrupting prejudice, which involves appealing to the power of your reasoning skills. I learned about this strategy from a TED Talk I watched, titled Can Prejudice ever be a good thing?.

The speaker, Paul Bloom, starts his talk by introducing the concept of prejudice as a naturally occurring process. He presents a quote by the great philosopher William Hazlitt in his essay, On Prejudice:

“Without the aid of prejudice and custom, I should not be able to find my way across the room; nor know how to conduct myself in any circumstances, nor what to feel in any relation of life.”

William Hazlitt (1778–1830), On Prejudice

In other words, if I can’t prejudge my experience with something, how can I anticipate any consequences of my future actions? How can I learn from a mistake, or from something that harmed me? Our ability to prejudge things, then, is necessary for our survival. The problem comes when our tendency to prejudge something – or someone – goes awry. 

To demonstrate the idea of prejudice gone awry, Dr. Bloom presents the results from a 2015 study on racial bias, in which the researchers found that products sold on Ebay, such as baseball cards, received higher bids when the images in their ads showed the baseball cards being held by White hands, compared to ads where the same products were held by Black hands. 

To demonstrate a more serious, even life-threatening consequence of prejudice gone awry, Dr. Bloom presents the findings from a study done at Stanford University, again on racial bias. In this study, researchers found that individuals who identify as Black, who were found guilty of the murder of a White person, were more likely to be given the death penalty if they appeared more “prototypically Black”. 

“It turns out, holding everything else constant, you are considerably more likely to be executed if you look like the man on the right than the man on the left, and this is in large part because the man on the right looks more prototypically black, more prototypically African-American, and this apparently influences people’s decisions over what to do about him.”
-Dr. Paul Bloom

Whether subtle or serious, you can see that prejudice gone awry can have harmful consequences. Dr. Bloom presents two ways to disable the effects of prejudice.

So what does Dr. Bloom mean when he says you can break the habit of prejudging others by appealing to the power of reason?

The first strategy is to appeal to the power of your empathy. This strategy is described in detail in our article titled, The Power of Empathy.

The second strategy presented by Dr. Bloom involves appealing to the power of your reason.

Dr. Bloom argues that although you may have heard the phrases, “love thy neighbour” or “love thy enemy”, these goal are not realistic. Do we really love these people? Many people don’t even like their neighbour, let alone love them, but that doesn’t mean you want to cause them harm. You feel a certain obligation to treat them and their property with respect, because you understand that their life and their property are as important to them as yours is to you. You use reason to guide your behaviour toward others, not love. 

You can bind yourself to certain rules that will disable you from prejudging an individual based on irrelevant characteristics.

You can bind yourself to certain rules that will disable you from prejudging an individual based on irrelevant characteristics. One example of this is when orchestras audition their new musicians behind a screen or curtain. They do this because the only information that is relevant to their decision-making is the individuals’ ability to play their instrument. 

Another meaningful example presented by Dr. Bloom of how to bind yourself is when representatives of a country sign a constitution. A nation can decide that no matter how much one citizen, or a group of citizens may want to discriminate against individuals based on their protected characteristics (age, race, sex, religion, etc.), the nation has bound itself from those options.  

What steps can your organization take to bind itself from even accidentally prejudging a person based on irrelevant information?

The Power of Empathy

I recently watched a mind-blowing TED Talk on the topic of prejudice. What I found so moving was the way the speaker, Paul Bloom, explained prejudice in such simple terms, and what’s more, how he prescribes two simple life hacks for dismantling your own prejudiced thinking. 

One of the life hacks Dr. Bloom talks about is appealing to the power of empathy. The truth is, when presented facts and statistics about an issue, we are less likely to do something to help, such as donate or volunteer. However, when we’re presented with a story about a real person’s experience with tragedy or hardship, something inside us drives us to act – our empathy. That’s why the stories in movies, TV shows, and books are so compelling; and that’s why you see commercials for UNICEF on television telling the story of a specific child suffering from starvation, rather than numbers and statistics. Advertisers understand the power of empathy. 

Because you too understand the power of empathy, you can now harness this power and use it to strategically rewire your thinking about groups of people you are not familiar or comfortable with.

Dr. Bloom presents a famous example of this rewiring process when he talks about the influence of the book Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Although the book is now known in large part for its offensive use of stereotypes, another big impact it had was that it gave readers a view into the perspectives of individuals who were enslaved in the US during the 1800’s. By putting readers into the shoes of an individual suffering in slavery, the book gave many people a sense of empathy that they didn’t have before. In fact, this book is believed to have significantly fuelled the movement toward the abolition of slavery in 1862.

Appealing to the power of your empathy can be as simple (and enjoyable) as reading a book, going to an event, or watching a movie about a culture of people that you don’t understand. Think of a group of people outside your comfort zone, and ask yourself, how will I learn more about this culture?

What resources will I use to appeal to the power of my own empathy?

A question to consider

Life contains many issues that have a moral dimension that may or may not be connected to law. 

The word moral is dangerous when left undefined. It is ambiguous given that the moral content of an issue is always discerned through a specific lens or measured with a specific meter.  There are different moral standards that we could use to answer the question posed by the article’s title. We’ll  keep things simple by leveraging  the principle of “do no harm to others” to uncover the moral dimension of prejudice.

The question could be framed as, “Does prejudice lead to physical or emotional harm?”  Perhaps a better question might be, “Would a rational, prudent, impartial person acknowledge that prejudice violates contemporary ideals, norms, or values of respect for persons?” 

I think it’s good to acknowledge that the question won’t capture all of the nuances of a particular situation. It does, however, provide good guidance.

Prejudice could also be considered an ambiguous word. Let’s define it as a condition that affects our behavior toward other people. It can be discerned in us when all of the following symptoms are present:

  1. Prejudging a person or group using hand-me-down stories;
  2. Holding derogatory beliefs;
  3. Hostility and fear are the dominant feelings associated with a person or group;
  4. Inclination to hinder, hurt, or support others in doing the same.

Would someone manifesting the above symptoms violate contemporary ideas, norms, or values of respect for persons? 

Let me morph an old proverb as an answer: The proof of the pudding can be found on the receiving. You will need to understand the lived experiences of those you hold prejudices against or at minimum listen to their voices.