Predestined to Prejudice?

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By Mark Hewitt

Psychological research indicates that our minds work on a principle called the "cognitive miser". That means that our biological imperative is to find the way of thinking about things that requires the least mental processing. We tend naturally towards shortcuts, heuristics, rules-of-thumb.

One of the biggest jobs for the human mind is building models of the things we encounter. Building models of people is hardest of all, but our minds do an amazing job of it if they have enough information. Once you've known someone and spent a lot of time with them, you can predict how they'll react to many situations. Your mental model has become complex enough to begin to resemble your friend's mind.

The problem comes at the other end of the scale, when you have relatively little information about a person. Your mind is always looking for the most economical way of understanding something, so it's going to use the simplest way to begin building its model. It does this by using big overlapping groups, called "schemas". Those schemas might be "Male", "Adult", "Professional", each of which carries its own bundle of common characteristics. And of course they also include schemas like "Black", "Straight" or "Poor".

On the surface of things, this paints a pretty sad picture. We seem to be pre-programmed to tend toward prejudice, assumption and profiling. Even the most enlightened, thoughtful and open-minded of us can't escape the subconscious functioning of our own mind! But like pretty much any theory of predestination, it's flawed.

This isn't some kind of immutable fate, it's a tendency. We are also genetically driven to reproduce as fast as possible, and act selfishly unless there's something to benefit us (or at least our genes), but that doesn't mean we have to do it. It just means that moving in a direction contrary to those tendencies is a little harder than it would otherwise be. And isn't human achievement and greatness characterised by fighting against our natural tendencies and pushing upstream?

Mark Hewitt is a writer and blogger. You can read more of his work at

Tip for the day: Visit the National Secular Society web-site.

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