Our human interface with reality

Category Archives: Chapter 10

Polarised Opinions. Little exchange of knowledge

The Science of Prejudice

Excerpt from: Bottleneck – Our human interface with reality

The disturbing and exciting implications of its true nature

By Richard Epworth

Copyright © Richard Epworth 2014. First published in December 2013

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The Science of 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)[1]

The bottleneck tells us that we are unable to absorb more than a tiny fraction of the available information in the present moment, but within that moment we are already familiar with the majority of what our senses are telling us, through our memories of similar experiences in the past. We have already distilled our history into a set of rules, and these usually predict something very similar to what we are sensing. This allows us to focus our attention on the relatively small difference between what we expect and what we sense, and this enables us to maximise the value of our limited learning capacity.

The fundamental quality that distinguishes humans from other species is the huge role that experience-based prediction plays in our daily lives. Whenever we make judgements, we are far more reliant on information from our past than on information perceived in the present moment. This means that with the exception of our crude reflexes, all our judgements are dominated by what we have previously learned. We integrate everything that we are learning with what we have already learned. The little information that is truly new to us has to compete with the vastness of all our past, and where they do not concur, our past is more often the winner.

In the memory contests described earlier, competitors are required to memorise a sequence of random numbers. Their previous experience is of absolutely no help to them in predicting the next numbers as they are completely random. This is an extremely unusual situation for anyone. In almost every situation we encounter, we are able to quickly come up with ideas, predictions of what we are experiencing based on what we already know of our situation, without having to wait for the entire experience itself. We have considerable expectations.

This can be illustrated by considering these three totally different responses to an identical hypothetical stimulation of my senses:

  • I feel something touch the back of my arm. I immediately realize it is my lover gently tenderly reminding me that we must go soon, and I turn to smile at her.
  • I feel something touch the back of my arm. I immediately leap off my seat while swatting my arm, “Those damn biting insects, I knew we shouldn’t have camped next to the river!”
  • I feel something touch the back of my arm. I immediately blab the code-word that my torturer had been threatening to extract from me using his red hot branding iron, only to discover that he had merely touched me with the cold key to my cell door. He laughs.

Each of these completely different responses was initiated by sensing exactly the same thing: My skin sensed pressure, and sent a simple nerve signal to my brain indicating this simple fact alone, but no other information. However, for each of these situations my mind had different expectations, and responded in context.

In the first case, my mind was primed to expect the sensation to be caused by my lover and my expectation was confirmed. In both the second and third cases my prior attention had primed my reflexes, causing completely different “knee-jerk” reactions from my body, even before my brain caught up. While in the third case, my expectation was manipulated by someone else. For all three cases, the input information from the moment “now” is identical; the differences in the immediate experience are entirely due to my different expectations from the past, my prejudices.

In this chapter, I reveal how this process of experience-based prediction is the intrinsic mechanism behind all prejudice, whether negative or positive. Most of our prejudices are benign and serve us well, but a few are deeply flawed distortions of reality, such as the naive positive prejudice of hero-worship, or the harmful negative prejudice of racism. It is often said that education overcomes prejudice, but under closer examination it would appear that all of our learning builds a lifetime of prejudices. Education merely replaces crude prejudices with ones that are more detailed, more accurate, and therefore ones that are hopefully more useful and less harmful.

“There is no prejudice so strong as that which arises from
 a fancied exemption from all prejudice” – William Hazlitt[2]

Prejudice is a behaviour more easily observed in others. For many years I held two strong prejudices: I believed that all prejudices were bad, and that nice people like me did not hold them. Having gained more insight into my own mental processes, I now realize that they are a key part of our everyday life, and not intrinsically bad.

The harm within prejudice occurs when we are ignorant of its profound influence within ourselves, and so unable to understand its cause in others. I hope that by exploring this process further, we can help defeat an enemy that lurks somewhere within all our minds, negative prejudice. To do this, we will see what insights can be gained by considering the process of prejudice in terms of information and our bottleneck-constrained learning, rather than the more usual sense of moral judgement.

Prejudiced words

The word “prejudice” is derived from pre and judge, a pre-judgement.[3] The first two definitions of the word in the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language are:[4]

“An adverse judgement or opinion formed beforehand or without knowledge or examination of the facts.”

“A preconceived preference or idea.”

The first and most commonly understood meaning is that a prejudice is intrinsically a negative thing, and this definition is particularly useful when we feel self-righteous. We are also likely to be familiar with the negative side of a positive prejudice, for example when someone who is supposed to be acting impartially, favours their own family or friends. Either way, from our own perspective, such prejudice is bad, and easily involves us emotionally.

However, if we want to gain insight into the science behind prejudice, it is more helpful to explore the second of these definitions, a completely neutral definition of the word, meaning: to prejudge, to decide before all the detail is available, to make an early decision, to take a position before all the facts are in.

There are two components to “pre”-“judice”: The timing and the judgement. Let’s first consider the timing: A prejudice always requires some knowledge of the facts, even if it is only the subject under consideration. One cannot hold a prejudice until one has learned something, something that predisposes us towards a judgement such as a person’s nationality. But how much knowledge must someone acquire before their judgement is considered completely free of prejudice? Can someone who has acquired all the information still be prejudiced? What might “all the information” mean? And when is it too soon to make a judgement?

The second part of prejudice is the judgement itself. The purpose of a judgement is often to enable an action, perhaps an urgent action, such as avoiding a collision, illustrating that prejudiced actions can be positive and negative. A judgement is a simplification, there is less information after the judgement than before, and we may forget the details discarded in the process of judgement. In some judgements a complex opinion is reduced to one single bit of information, a decision such as: guilty/not guilty, left/right, good/bad, or to pass the other ship on the port/starboard side. In the extreme case of the death penalty, the judgement no longer retains the complexity of why the crime was committed by subsequently destroying a key witness.

Of course in common use, we tend to use “prejudice” as a derogatory term to describe the behaviour of other people with whom we disagree. The purely negative interpretation of the word relies on the assumption that we personally know what is good and bad in an absolute sense. And it is worth noting that our discomfort with accepting a less negative definition is evidence itself that what we have learned in the past influences how we receive new information.

It would be convenient for us to imagine that all reasonable minded people can agree on what constitutes a prejudice and what does not, but in the real world this is highly subjective. We often encounter those who seem both knowledgeable and intelligent, yet are suddenly shocked when they express a prejudice about something on which we hold a completely different point of view. Consider the difference between faith and prejudice, both imply trusting a belief without all the supporting evidence, yet one is generally considered benign and the other is not.

Our internal predictive model generates subjective opinions that we personally may consider as objective truths. We use words such as “prejudice”, “objective”, “opinionated” as if they have some absolute significance, that we are holders of true knowledge. But they are all simply expressions of the extent to which we concur with each other. When I say that someone is being “objective”, it simply means that they have expressed an opinion that I agree with. Let’s be frank, I would never say it if I disagreed with them.

You might argue that someone is also being “objective” when they can back up their opinion with evidence, but this only applies when I accept their interpretation of the evidence. An opinion shared by many does not become a fact, but consensus gives us the confidence to ignore the distinction. If a group of us agree to limit the range and extent of what is observed or discussed by using a constrained formal language such as science, then within that context it will be as if we are being objective.

As physicist Niels Bohr put it: “Physics is to be regarded not so much as the study of something a priori given, but rather as the development of methods of ordering and surveying human experience. In this respect our task must be to account for such experience in a manner independent of individual subjective judgement and therefore objective in the sense that it can be unambiguously communicated in ordinary human language.”[5] It has been said that “science has enjoyed an extraordinary success because it has such a limited and narrow realm in which to focus its efforts, namely, the physical universe”.[6]

“Common Sense” is just such an agreement. It is something that we can all agree upon, perhaps repeatedly sensed by ourselves and concurring with what we have learned from those around us as part of our culture.[7] Common sense and objectivity are ideas that only survive intact when confined to the dry land of reason. If we are to stay with the illusion of objectivity we must steer well clear of vast areas of rich experience such as love and other emotions, areas that encompass so much of what we consider important in our personal lives. Our feelings towards our own family, our taste in music, food, clothes or our favourite sports teams, are certainly not shared by everyone.

When we say “sports team or musical band “X” are brilliant/rubbish” we might deceive ourselves that we are making a statement about what they are, forgetting that we are speaking only of our personal taste. In reality we are just expressing our subjective opinion on how they perform, and on how that affects us emotionally. It is merely a statement about how we feel in relation to them. Our belief in our objectivity is like the belief in Father Christmas for the child that knows the truth about Santa: We collude in the illusion because it continues to bring us valuable gifts. An objective world is much more comfortable to inhabit, especially when based on our own beliefs.

If I say someone else is “prejudiced” or “opinionated”, I am stating no more than that I disagree with their subjective opinion (or maybe that I just don’t like them). Equally I might be accused of being opinionated whenever I try to communicate my “objective” opinion to someone with a differing idea of things. The uncomfortable truth is that we are all prejudiced and opinionated, since it is fundamental to how we humans function, though some reveal their opinions readily while others conceal their own.

Varieties of prejudice

We think of prejudice in terms of personal attitudes, but a prejudice is a prediction based on limited information. It is vital to remember that prediction is the most valuable skill we humans possess. Although we have few outstanding physical qualities compared with other creatures, our species has been able to achieve mastery across our planet through the use of our brain as a predictive tool. We each make unconscious predictions as a means of perceiving and exploring the detailed world we are in, despite the limitations of our senses and of our learning bottleneck. We navigate our way through the present (and towards the future), using what we have learned from the past. We find it almost impossible to live entirely in the moment, because we continually plan and judge what should be our course of action in the future without any knowledge of the future, and we create cohesive yet largely fictional stories of our past, based on mere fragments of information.

Fully conscious prejudices

As we are unaware of these unconscious processes, it may be difficult to appreciate how much of our perception is determined by prejudice, but we can gain some insight by first considering some of our more conscious prejudices. For example, we consciously make predictions through the rules of science. We make observations and then convert them into insights and rules that enable us to extend into new areas, ones in which we as yet have no detailed knowledge.

Consider the science behind Apollo program that took men to the Moon: Throughout history, men had observed the effect of gravity and other forces on an object of a given mass and struggled to understand them. When Sir Isaac Newton conceived his elegant physical laws of motion he did not do so spontaneously. His skill was to compress a myriad of observations made by himself and by others into the most compact form possible, into generally applicable rules that enable us to predict what will happen, for example when we attempt to hurl an object into space.[8] [9]

Although many aspects of the Apollo program were incredibly complex, Newton’s laws of motion, despite being formulated as early as 1687, were sufficient to describe the dynamics of the trajectory of the 1969 Moon mission. The fact that the launched capsule could reach its precise destination a quarter of a million miles away with only the tiniest of mid-course correction, is testament to mankind’s use of predictive science, the journey being made almost entirely by dead reckoning from the initial launch conditions, the mass, the required thrust and direction. The scientists had prejudged the required rocket thrust and direction during the launch phase, in order for the capsule to coast the next quarter of a million miles to the Moon.

This was possible despite our lack of experience of the space it would traverse because empty space contains no significant surprises; there is little of any consequence between the Earth and the Moon. Only when they reached the Moon’s surface did they encounter things that they could not predict, such as the depth of the dust on the surface.

Compare that with the task of navigating a sailing boat across an ocean to a specific destination. There are many unpredictable influences along the journey, such as the wind strength and direction, which make it essential to take frequent measurements of one’s position and apply many successive course corrections. In the journey to the Moon there was little to be learned along the way that would help with navigation. The initial predictions based on centuries old theories were sufficient, while on the sea journey, almost continual learning is required.

The extent to which our predictions are sufficient to determine an outcome is likely to be determined by the simplicity of the actual situation, as revealed by these two examples. The Lunar space programme was an incredible achievement, but perhaps made us over-confident in our ability to solve problems on Earth, for there is nothing on our planet that is as simple as space.

As a scientist working in a research laboratory, I was occasionally required to be a bit of a detective. An experiment or system being tested gave a puzzling result that did not fit with what was expected, with what our current understanding predicted would occur. We were naturally prejudiced by our past experiences and sometimes this made it hard to spot something completely new to us, especially when we had become emotionally attached to what we had already learned and what had served us so well till now. We would devise all sorts of excuses for the result until the evidence for a new phenomenon became so overwhelmingly conspicuous that we were forced to modify our existing ideas. In this sense a good researcher needs some of the skills of a detective to try to predict an explanation based on past experience, yet always to be open to the possibility of the completely unexpected.

Mostly unconscious prejudices

We also hold many prejudices which we are unconscious of most of the time, yet are readily brought to our conscious mind by giving them our attention. One example of a valuable prejudice is that I should drive on the left hand side of the road. Although this is the law in the UK, once we have learned to drive it soon becomes second nature rather than a continually conscious awareness of the letter of the law.

Whenever I see a car coming towards me in the distance, I do not immediately ask myself which side I should expect it to pass me by. Instead, I rely on my long standing prejudice that we will all keep to the left side of the road (as I live and drive in the UK), and I can drive for hours without ever consciously remembering it. Without this prejudice, my attention would be distracted by this question with each and every car that came in the opposite direction, and make driving on busy roads almost impossible. So when I leave the UK to drive in Europe or the USA, it is essential for me to keep reminding myself of my prejudice, and remember to override it and drive on the same side of the road as the local drivers.

When I graduated, I spent the summer being driven around the States by a friend who had recently emigrated. Although he had been driving in the States for two years, I was rather unnerved to see that he had a small note stuck to the centre of his steering wheel to remind him to “Drive on the Right”. You see, he knew that old prejudices can reappear when you least expect. Having driven on the left in the UK for decades, he was worried that this habit might surface inappropriately. He was a teacher, and knew that two years of education or experience is insufficient to completely annihilate decades of prejudice.

However, I was soon to learn just how easy it is to pick up an unconscious prejudice. Over that long summer, I had travelled many thousands of miles in cars and buses that drove on the right hand side of the North American roads, but only ever as a passenger, so I hadn’t consciously been too concerned with which side of the road we were driving on. A month after I returned to the UK, I rode my motorbike across country to visit another friend. When I set off to return, it was a beautifully quiet summer evening, not a car on the road. All was well with the world.

I had been riding along for about fifteen minutes, when suddenly I noticed a car approaching in the distance, driving on the wrong side of the road. I surmised that it was some idiotic youths larking about, just trying to scare me, but as the car continued to head directly towards me I became increasingly concerned. At the last minute I had to veer off into the ditch to avoid being hit by the car. I swung round, fist in the air shouting “bloody idiot” at the car’s occupants. But instead of the grinning youths I expected, I saw a family group, all staring open-mouthed with shocked expressions. Suddenly the penny dropped; it was I who was on the wrong side of the road!

Fortunately, on that day the only casualty was my pride. I had survived months of crossing streets in the USA by keeping vigilant. Now back in familiar territory I had relaxed, and a little bit of subconscious programming rose to the surface and almost killed me. I had discovered how unconsciously learned prejudices can be dangerous, and how they can influence our behaviour when we least expect it. I sometimes wonder what that shocked family told their friends when they got home, their tale probably involved an “idiotic youth”.

Completely unconscious prejudices

We also hold prejudices that we are almost completely unconscious of, yet nevertheless influence our actions. Many of these relate to our ideas about other people. Remember how we create and animate a puppet-like model in our mind for each person we encounter? Well, this is where our opinionated prejudices lurk, both good and bad. Although they normally lie hidden, with effort it is possible observe our own prejudiced mind at work. As I have done so over the years, I have become increasingly amazed at the tricks my own mind plays on me.

My next-door neighbour had a dysfunctional relative come to stay for a couple of weeks, a visit which subsequently stretched to a couple of years. Not only did she give him a fair amount of grief, but when he left the house she played her music at maximum volume, even to the point of seriously damaging his sound system. Whenever I heard loud music coming through our adjoining wall it usually signified the start of a very unpleasant few hours, so I was predisposed to expect a bad experience. Eventually the offending family member moved out and peace returned.

About six months later, I was working at my computer when suddenly I heard what appeared to be very loud music coming through the wall from next door. Immediately my heart dropped. I guessed that the problem had returned and braced myself for the inevitable disturbance. However, after a few minutes I suddenly realized that the sound was not a loud sound heard through the adjoining wall, but instead it was a barely audible sound from the little speakers of my own PC (which had spontaneously decided to play some music from a web page). I burst out laughing at my own acquired paranoia and marvelled how my assessment of “loud” had been so distorted by my idea of the sound’s origin. I am fascinated by my slowness to unlearn a prejudice, and wonder where else in my life I am equally out of contact with current reality.

Many of us would be happy to live by the ocean, with the continual sound of the waves breaking upon the shore, but we might be very upset if back in our city apartment we heard exactly the same sound coming from next door’s HiFi system, relentlessly day and night. These are clear examples of the subjective nature of the intensity of things we sense. Our preconceived idea of the cause can have a huge effect on our experience, especially if we think that people are involved, for then we can take it personally, thinking: “I wouldn’t behave like that”.

Mad Driver

I will now risk revealing the extent of my own prejudices, with examples of some of the things that go on in my mind while I’m driving my car. When we are in our vehicles our view of our fellow drivers is usually obscured and brief, yet as we generally have a clear view of their vehicle and its motion, our mind is free to make prejudiced guesses about the actual driver based on what little we do see (at least my own mind does).

Driving along the motorway I occasionally notice a vehicle weaving erratically outside its designated lane. My very first thought is that the driver is drunk or on drugs, and I assume it’s a male. If the weaving abruptly stops and normal lane discipline is resumed, I then revise my prejudice and guess that the driver was sober, but trying to change a cassette, or sending a text message on their mobile phone.

Sometimes it is possible to get a clearer view of the possible cause, as we pass by in the adjacent lane. On one occasion the erratic driver turned out to be a woman swivelling in her seat, screaming at her misbehaving children in the back. On another occasion, the driver of an erratically driven truck was attempting to apply butter to a cracker on his knee, a scenario that my years of experience failed to predict!

I also have a wealth of prejudices about drivers based solely on the appearance of the car they are driving, its type, colour and condition. Who would you expect to be driving a tiny new bright pink Nissan Micra saloon? My own prejudice is that it is a first car, bought for an eighteen year old girl by her father. How about the respective drivers of a bright red Ferrari, and an ancient Volkswagen camper van? I am sure you already have some ideas about them.

Throughout our lives, we invent stories that make sense of our experiences: While driving in traffic along a main road I see a vehicle apparently waiting to pull out from a side turning. It is a woman driver in a large white 4-wheel drive vehicle. I make space for her to pull out but she fails to respond, and seems completely unaware of anything outside her vehicle. I am now annoyed that I am holding up both myself and the traffic for her. I notice that she has a cigarette in one hand and a mobile phone held to her ear in the other. I immediately feel that I know her type!

But I might be wrong. After all I have only glimpsed her for a mere second or two. For all I know, she might just have heard that her child has had an accident and been rushed to hospital. Perhaps the doctor is on the phone to her, asking crucial questions about the child’s medication, and she is having her first cigarette in years to calm her down. No wonder she is distracted.

All this creative drama can be going on in my head and in remarkable detail too. My predicting mind animates a little puppet to represent this person with whatever odd ideas it can conjure up from its history. And the stories that I choose reflect my own state of mind at the time, whether I am stressed and angry, or relaxed and in love with the summers day.

I am a guy who enjoys driving, so as you can see this is a fruitful area for my prejudices to explore, and one in which I have by now revealed my foolishness. For you it may be very different, however, there will be areas of your life where you too imagine detailed stories that make sense of what you see and hear. Perhaps you feel that you know about someone’s character by seeing what car they drive, what clothes they wear, the street they live, their accent or the colour of their skin.

Fashioned in our own image

Although the primary function of a car is as a means of transport, for many it is also a fashion item whose purpose is to create an image of us in the minds of others. Let’s be honest, there are many people who “wouldn’t be seen dead” in a car of a particular type or age, or even colour. Many men feel that their status among others is strongly influenced by the image of the vehicle they drive. The large market for fashionable cars that are demonstrably unreliable and expensive to run, suggests that for many car owners, once the primary function is met, the most important quality is the image that their vehicle projects.

The same applies to our clothes whose primary function is warmth (and modesty), yet in affluent economies their secondary function of promoting our image through the idea of fashion, completely dwarfs that of their primary function. Both cars and clothes do have other functions, but these remain the dominant reasons for choosing them.

The concept of fashion requires us to invest in an idea of an external observer, in particular the idea of what that observer might value in how they see us. So in our mind we craft puppet characters which incorporate our idea of how these characters might judge us. Much of the pleasure derived from fashionable cars, clothes and other fruits of our material culture, come from our belief that others will identify us with a higher status cultural group. It therefore relies on the idea of the existence of a lower status community of less fashionable people. We assume that we can manipulate other people’s prejudices through what they see of us.

For a few creative individuals, fashion is about breaking from the status quo, having the courage to wear what conflicts with the norms of their peers. Whereas, for those who follow fashion (my wife doesn’t think I am one of those either), it is about conforming to a style, a uniform which we believe will be approved by our peers and encourage a positively prejudiced view of us as people.

We want to feel good about ourselves, and only the most secure individuals can achieve that from within themselves. So we might try to dress in a way (or choose a car) that we imagine will make other people say “you look attractive”, “I like you”, “I admire you” or “I respect you, because you are cool”. We might target a specific audience, for example specifically those who recognise that my car or handbag is a very special one.

If we were the last person on the planet and knew that there was no-one else to impress, even the most fashion conscious of us might choose different cars and clothes, perhaps going for comfort or utility instead. There are no absolutes in fashion (apart from not wearing socks with sandals my wife assures me); it is about wanting to feel special, not average. So as the average is changed by fashion, what is deemed fashionable will always evolve with time, what is thought to be attractive, comes and goes, and returns again.

Different cultural groups follow their own distinct fashions, whether the latest elegant Paris dress designs, or baseball hats worn back to front. Today most of us can afford clothes that satisfy their primary function, so clothes that are elegant or in good condition are no longer unique signatures of success. We now have styles that imitate poverty, with faded denim jeans or holes in the knees, or try to create a cool ghetto myth with trousers hanging down to expose underpants. These different “islands” of fashion are possible because we create very different puppet-like representations in our mind of external observers from the cultural group we are seeking to impress.

Fashion is communicated almost entirely through vision, which is our most powerful sense because of its range and angular resolution. Yet our vision is also our most superficial sense, in that it is the least penetrating, revealing nothing more than the very surface of complex objects and interesting people. While many people spend precious time working on their appearance before going out, hoping that others won’t “see through” their mask, much less time is spent polishing a personality, or practicing conversational skills. Many Islamic women say that wearing an all-covering burka liberates them, in that it stops them feeling judged by their appearance. Yet paradoxically, having concealed the complexity of female fashion, what remains for the observer is a blank canvas, onto which we who are kept ignorant, may project all manner of judgements.

You might feel that this discussion of fashion trivialises the idea of prejudice, but I use it to logically explain the subjective nature of our prejudices about people, and how they are based on our very limited ideas of how other people think. Our well-meaning attempts to eliminate serious negative prejudices in society may fail if we cannot understand the mechanism itself. Our history is littered with atrocities caused by prejudice of race, religion and skin-colour. Sadly it is one area where our civilisation has made negligible progress, as it continues to be the cause of much suffering in our world.

When is the right time to decide?

“Prejudice is a great time saver.
You can form opinions without having to get the facts” – Elwyn Brooks White[10]

We are all familiar with the negative consequences of prejudiced judgements in society, yet this same human tendency has been vital for the survival and success of our species. A prejudice is an early decision, a position taken before all the facts are in. If we were ignorant of our learning bottleneck we might assume that, if willing, we could take each situation at face value, absorb all the information necessary at the time, and then make a considered judgement. But now we know that is fundamentally not possible to do so. So we have to rely on our history, to predict what is likely and to focus our attention on what is most important to learn from the moment.

Making timely decisions and judgements can be crucial, whether we are choosing when to cross the road, or trading on the stock-market. So our prejudices exploit the value of our previous experience, to minimise the delay that would result from making decisions based solely on what we sense in the present. Our prejudices save time, and can prevent us being paralysed when too much information is available to us.

Here is an example of what I mean: Imagine a couple of naive city guys who find themselves walking in the African Savannah but know nothing of the animals there. They are suddenly disturbed by a “thundering” noise which gets louder and louder and look up to see a large grey blur coming towards them. The more decisive guy acts on his prejudice that “whatever it is, I should probably get out of its way”, so jumps to the side (and being decisive he has little hesitation in choosing which way to jump).

However, his strongly analytical colleague wants to know what it is before he acts. He watches intently as it gets closer, gathering yet more and more detailed information about the object: skin colour, markings, size and apparent weight, confident that when he has enough information, he will know just what to do….. “Thump”, and is crushed to death. His friend, who survives entirely due to his prejudice, later learns that it was a charging Rhino. Although he was ignorant of much of the detail, his prejudice saved him.

You might say that he used his instinct instead, but where do we imagine that our instincts come from?[11] Putting aside any metaphysical ideas, instinctual behaviour must either be learned, or inherited through ones DNA. I doubt our survivor was born with all the necessary information in his DNA. It is more likely that he had learned from other experiences throughout his life. Although we all have an inborn instinctive reflex to flinch away from objects moving into our field of view, it would have been triggered too late to save him. There is plenty of evidence that our inborn instincts alone are insufficient to protect pedestrians from being attacked by speeding cars.

We reduce complexity to simplicity by the act of deciding, discarding detail, replacing a larger amount of information with a much smaller amount. Decisiveness is one of many personality traits measured when assessing people’s suitability for roles, and is a strong characteristic of military leaders and of most leaders of industry and commerce. Making timely decisions is just as important as making well thought-out decisions in many of the situations that they face. Of course both are important, but a leader who cannot make a decision can lead to disaster.

Decisive people tend to be more comfortable with the idea of learning from mistakes, and may even happily share examples of their own mistakes. Some decisive people may have developed their skill in response to their own discomfort with handling complexity. They may feel the need to collapse complexity into simplicity as soon as possible. Others may be addicted in varying degrees to the risk and excitement of their actions, even to the extent of taking risks with other people’s jobs or finances.

At the opposite end of the decisiveness scale are those who are detail-conscious, analytical people who are comfortable with dealing with complexity. They may be less comfortable with reducing complex situations to what they see as a crude Yes or No, fearing that strong decisiveness can lead to outright dangerous behaviour, decisions made too soon. In contrast, strongly decisive people can feel frustrated by what they see as the “paralysis by analysis” of those who are strongly detail-conscious.

Many workforces rely on teams of detail-conscious staff to actually do the job, led by a smaller number of more-decisive people. Of course we all have both qualities within us in varying proportions but we probably know a few people who display aspects of these archetypes quite well. These traits are neither good nor bad, they are just more or less appropriate to the specific roles that people are asked to perform. Those with strengths at either end of the scale can feel painfully out of place if required to perform their opposite roles.

So how does decisiveness relate to prejudice? Well, a strong decider might be seen to be more prejudiced than a detail-conscious person. Equally, one who finds it impossible to make a decision might be thought incapable of prejudice, (though in some sense this is deciding not to make a decision yet). It is evident that a detail conscious individual absorbs more information than a decisive one before making a decision. However, which is the most appropriate behaviour will depend entirely on the situation.

This all goes to show that the appropriate timing of a judgement is what is important. The survival of our species and success of our civilisation demands decisions. It is not enough for us to simply observe and accumulate information, we must act. As Leo Tolstoy said “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing”.[12]

When fifty shades of grey become a black and white affair

We have seen how prejudice involves a simplification at some point in time; it is a prediction based on our previously accumulated knowledge combined with a small amount of new information (which is intrinsically limited by our learning bottleneck). These early judgements are an essential part of our human behaviour, and the majority have a positive value. However, the darker side of prejudice emerges when we mistakenly confuse our new-found simplicity with external reality.

We must never forget that simplicity is in the mind of the perceiver. At any given moment in time, the clarity of our point of view may merely be a measure of our own ignorance. For example, a Jewish colleague who lived in Northern Ireland told me that during the “troubles”, the local people often asked if he was a Protestant or a Catholic.[13] When he replied that he was neither as he was Jewish, they then pressed him to clarify whether he was a Protestant Jew or Catholic Jew. They could not understand someone in their cultural environment, who could not be defined by one of these two categories.

All prejudice is based on information, yet we rarely consider this aspect of prejudice in anything more than qualitative terms, so let’s now explore how much information we attach to our opinions. When we form opinions on various issues, we make judgements to different degrees of accuracy. The accuracy may be limited by our ignorance, our laziness, or by our current estimate of the value in ascribing accuracy to a judgement. Remember that these potentially inaccurate parameters are what we use to construct our model of everyone and every thing in our youniverse.

This is important to appreciate, as the world we experience is the one we create in our mind. So this information limit is like a quantum limit applied to our experience. It is as if we create our models from Lego building bricks, the more bricks we use to build our models; the more our models will faithfully represent the real things. If we tried to build a Lego model of a real aircraft from just four Lego bricks, it would be a very poor representation, easily confused with other types of aircraft, or even mistaken for something completely different. The land of Legoland[14] only appears to be a recognisable model, because vast numbers of bricks are used to create the objects within it.

The early computer game of Pong was the crudest simulation of the game of tennis that could be created on the earliest personal computers. For we who were only just discovering this new form of entertainment, this two-player game was exciting to play, yet its elementary portrayal of tennis contained only tiny elements of the real game. Early PCs were too slow and too simple to portray anything like a realistic game of tennis on the coarsely pixelated screens, yet reducing the game to its most elementary form made it one of the first successful interactive computer games. However, if a friend invited us round for a game of tennis today, we would probably be disappointed to be presented with a game of Pong.

So it is with our prejudices, a simple idea of a situation enables us to make a timely response when we have limited capabilities, but it may not provide us with an accurate prediction of reality. Pong is not tennis, and however much we might practice playing it, we would see little improvement in our real tennis game. Similarly, rehearsing our simple prejudices time after time simply reinforces them. It provides us with no clearer insights into complex realities. To do that, we must acquire more information with which to refine our prejudices.

Let’s explore how much information we use to describe various things we experience. In an earlier chapter we saw how information can be conveniently described in the form of digital bits, the number of bits determining the accuracy of this information.

Most physical things are inherently complex, so can only be fully described by the use of several parameters or dimensions, and with significant precision in each. So for example, when describing the key physical attributes of another human being we might include their sex, age, height, and weight. (There are many other characteristics that we can assume are common to almost everyone, such as number of ears, arms legs, so we generally don’t mention these unless they are an unusual feature, such as a missing arm or an extra finger).

In chapter one we saw how the accuracy of a measure can be quantified by the number of bits (binary digits) required to describe it. We characterise each parameter with a sufficient number of bits to tell us what we need to know:

Sex: if we assume just Male or Female, we need just one bit.

Age: 1 year accuracy in 128 years requires 7 bits (27=128).

Height: 1 centimetre accuracy in 2.5 metres requires 8 bits (28=256).

Weight: 1 kilo accuracy in 128 kilos requires 7 bits (27=128).

Note how various parameters require different numbers of bits to achieve the required resolution. To specify all four of these parameters for one individual requires just 23 bits (1+7+8+7), but this is not the person, just a sufficiently crude approximation to enable us to identify the individual within a small group of people. If we needed to identify one person within the entire population of the planet, far more information would be required, and even then, information of this sort would not tell us much about them as a human being.

When we consider those we know very well, there is surprisingly little we know about them with any great accuracy: Their sex, yes, their age quite likely, but we probably don’t know their height within a centimetre or their weight within a kilo. But we do hold many subjective opinions about them, for example, how attractive, how good a cook, how careful a driver, how entertaining, how smart.

Now pause for a moment and ask yourself how accurately you characterise some of these qualities. It is highly unlikely to be on a scale of more than 8 levels, which is only 3 bit accuracy (23). Indeed, few of our opinions are held to any better than 2 bits accuracy, giving just 4 alternatives (22, i.e. 2×2), for example the four options of: I hate it / I don’t like it / I like it / I love it.

Amazon’s web purchasing system uses a five-star rating system for reviewing how customers feel about their products. Although five point scales are probably the most common on the Internet, the ratings tend to cluster around two different numbers (e.g., 1 and 5) rather than offering a normal distribution where the ratings cluster around a single value (e.g., 3). So the average of these ratings is not always an accurate reflection of product quality, but instead is a statement of conflicting opinions.

The central three star category: “It’s OK”, tends only to be used when we don’t have an opinion, and people with less passionate opinions are reluctant to “waste” their time submitting reviews. Typically, positive ratings outnumber negative ratings, perhaps because people are reluctant to admit they have made a bad purchasing decision.

When it comes to our opinions about other people, and issues such as politics and religion, we hold them with quite low accuracy and the subtleties tend to disappear. Our opinions about people are often reduced to little more than For or Against: we apparently are content for our social networks such as Facebook, to ascribe only one bit to “Friend”, or “Like”.

Choosing or voting between just two options conceals the actual strength of our opinion. This is not a problem in elections involving a large number of voters, as the averaging of a large number of Yes/No votes, provides a more accurate measure of the average opinion of the voting community, provided of course that most people vote. However, when we describe an individual’s qualities using just these two extremes, the similarity between reality and how they appear in our youniverse, may well be entirely lost.

As we have already described, we create a puppet-like model of someone in our mind, based on our ideas about them. So if our idea of someone is simple, we can only expect our model of them to exhibit simple unsophisticated behaviour, and as we now know, what we experience will be dominated by what is already in our mind. But real people are always complex however attractive it may be to resort to our crude stereotypes.

Daniel Kahneman gave a moving example of this when he wrote of his experience in Nazi-occupied France, explaining in part why he entered the field of psychology: “It must have been late 1941 or early 1942. Jews were required to wear the Star of David and to obey a 6 p.m. curfew. I had gone to play with a Christian friend and had stayed too late. I turned my brown sweater inside out to walk the few blocks home. As I was walking down an empty street, I saw a German soldier approaching. He was wearing the black uniform that I had been told to fear more than others – the one worn by specially recruited SS soldiers.”

“As I came closer to him, trying to walk fast, I noticed that he was looking at me intently. Then he beckoned me over, picked me up, and hugged me. I was terrified that he would notice the star inside my sweater. He was speaking to me with great emotion, in German. When he put me down, he opened his wallet, showed me a picture of a boy, and gave me some money. I went home more certain than ever that my mother was right: people were endlessly complicated and interesting”.[15]

We have seen how the external world is far more complex than the structure (and storage capability) of our brain, so even if we had unlimited learning time we could never create a truly accurate internal representation of it. However, we can devise simplified models of what is out there, and as we observe and learn from subsequent experiences over time, our models become more detailed and increasingly accurate.

Consider what happens the very first time that we encounter someone from a particular foreign land or from a cultural group that is novel to us. We observe the features that are most different from what we expect and initially ascribe these as features common to all people from that country. If we just meet a few more similar people, our internal model becomes a bit more detailed, but often remains remarkably crude. We may think “they all look the same to me” because we only have one model in our mind to represent this national type. They all appear very similar until we have time to learn the differences between them.

I can still remember the very first time I met someone who was black skinned. I was an eight year old child in an all-white school in an all-white community, and the headmaster had organised a visit by a guest from Ghana. Strangely, I cannot remember if the visitor was a man or a woman, evidently their sex was not the feature that most grabbed my attention that day. What I do remember is that their skin was very black, and that they wore a long colourful traditional costume. I also remembered that they spoke with a funny accent (not “proper” like the rest of us Yorkshire boys).[16] It took many years before my idea of black people became more detailed, and in any way realistic.

If we have only ever met one person from a particular country or region, our experience of them may initially colour our idea of a whole population. When I travelled around the USA on the buses, I quickly developed views on which cities were safe and which were not. With hindsight, I realized that I had acquired positive prejudices for the places where I had made a personal connection with someone, and negative ones where I perhaps had just a single unfriendly encounter. I subsequently discovered that my prejudices bore little relationship to the day-to-day reality experienced by the people of those cities, and realized that I had judged whole cities on the tiniest of personal experiences.

The objective world of science revels in simplified models, especially in physics where simplified rules appear beautiful and are sufficient most of the time. The rest of our lives however, tend to be far more complex and subjective, and filled with dirty detail. Simplifications may help us make quick decisions, but at the cost of the subsequent blindness to so much important information.

The idea that Africa is hot and dry, or that the British people are unemotional, may seem adequate as long as we spend all our lives in Texas, and the simplified idea that the “Arabs” are one single cohesive group, may enable us to make some big decisions, even to start a war, but may leave us blind to the detailed insights necessary to win such a war.

Problems arise when we forget that the simplification is only in our mind, and not in reality. The world out there is no less complex because we “understand it”; we have just developed some mental models that enable us to make quick decisions, both good and bad. This is what we must strive to remember: that our apparently clear view of the world is almost entirely built on prejudices, acquired on our own unique journey through life, and that our prejudice is just our prejudice, our partial-sightedness, a small but useful caricature of an incredibly vast and complex world.

Old fashioned

When we construct the puppet-like characters that populate our youniverse, we imbue them with our past prejudices. The less we know of the individuals, the more they are caricatures or stereotypes. We may even have fashioned some of these caricatures entirely from other people’s prejudiced opinions. The personalities and behaviours of real people evolve over time, so when most of our personal experience of someone is from the more distant past, our caricature of them may be way out of date, and this caricature is the personality that we interact with, not the current reality of a real person.

If you are a parent of adult children, have they ever accused you of treating them like children? Do you try to advise them on subjects that they are actually quite knowledgeable about? In our private youniverse we have constructed simulations of the people in our lives from our experiences of them, and our idea of that person within our simulation will have an approximate age. I don’t mean the number of years they have lived, but the maturity age we subconsciously assume when we communicate with them.

This idea that our caricature of someone carries an assumption of their maturity age is obviously a simplification, as that age differs depending on the context of our interaction: Is my daughter helping me with my new computer? Am I attempting to advise my son on a career? However, the idea of an assumed average maturity age is a way to explain miscommunication between the generations within families, why we often communicate in a style assuming a different age and maturity than the reality.

This age will not simply be a numerical average of all their ages (i.e. half their actual age), and neither will it be their current biological age, unless we are asking ourselves that specific numerical question. We might expect it to be the average of all our experience of that child. We have more contact with our child when it is a baby, and progressively less contact as it goes to school, plays with its friends, finds a partner, goes away to college, and moves away to a job. Of course, not all parent-child relationships run this course but we can make adjustments for that later.

From birth until first school age, a house parent might experience their child for the majority of the time that they are not sleeping. When the child goes to school there will then be considerable times when neither parent nor child are experiencing the other, and as the years go by this proportion of shared experience time will tend to fall. The reality is that we have vastly more experience of our young child, than when our child has matured into an adult. When my “child” is aged 40, the shared parent-child experience during the second half of that child’s life might account for less than one percent of the shared parent-child experience during the first half of that child’s life.

In general, we have much less knowledge about our child as an adult, and occasional visits and phone calls may do little to change this idea of the maturity of our offspring. It takes vigilance to see past our history-based internal model, and be open to the adult personality that is here now. We may even be reluctant to let go of our idea of ourselves as a parent, having lost a sense of who we are beyond that role.

Of course this works the other way too: Our grown child has little experience of relating to us parents as equal adults, so may find it difficult to think of us as peers with vulnerabilities like their own. The foundation of their relationship with parents may be adolescent rebellion, and this may well persist or resurface in their adult mind. I personally could never imagine that my late father felt towards me in the same way that I do towards my own children. Sadly, I was never able to talk to him as an equal and explore our shared experience of parenting, as he died shortly after seeing my firstborn for the one and only time.

There is a big difference in the learning capabilities of a child and a parent. A learning child’s early ideas are readily replaced and superseded with new insights based on their current experiences, but it is difficult for “old dogs” to learn new tricks. So this is where we parents must be conscious of our prejudices and remember that our thirty-year-old offspring is probably vastly more capable than we might imagine. Parents who spend significant adult time with their grown children are able to reinforce the reality of who they really are, and slowly correct the easy prejudice that they are still children or adolescents.

Old age can bring further problems of misjudged maturity. As our sight and hearing diminishes we rely more and more on our internal ideas of people that we know, and are less able to perceive who they might have become. Age related memory loss and senility tend to strip away more recent experiences, leaving a very outdated idea of those we relate to. Perhaps you are familiar with an aged relative who thinks you are still a little child.

Our prejudices about individuals are not the only ones that are likely to be out of date, for we make the same errors with our ideas of whole nationalities. Historical prejudices about nations are sustained because few of us have any personal experience of many nationalities. Previously we saw how our idea of the world is somewhat like an old school globe, an incomplete model that is likely to be out of date. Growing up during the cold war, my school atlas showed the entire area of Europe occupied by the Soviet Union in a uniform red colour, so it was easy for me to assume that all Soviet citizens were of similar mind. Today we are gaining insight into the profound differences between peoples of the fifteen former Soviet republics (Russia, Bulgaria, Romania, Latvia, Estonia, Georgia, the Ukraine etc.), gradually ascribing more information to them, information that differentiates between them.

Polarised opinions

Informed opinions vary widely from person to person. If we were able to gauge people’s opinions by monitoring their change in pulse rate or blood pressure, we would expect to see a wide spread in what we measured. And so it is with carefully considered opinions; most cover a wide spectrum. But there are some things that many of us feel strongly about, for example, politics, religious belief, global warming, immigration and the use of the death penalty. Opinions on these are not uniformly distributed but tend to be polarised towards one extreme or the other. When we hold one of these positions we may sometimes wonder how any intelligent person can hold the opposing view to your own!

There are two main reasons for holding a polarised opinion: The first is a lack of detailed information, an innocent ignorance, and the second is committed prejudice, a determination to hold to an extreme despite further evidence to the contrary. If we have only acquired one single binary bit of information about something, our opinion in intrinsically polarised to one of only two options (e.g. Hero/Villain, Black/White, Conservative/Liberal, Pro/Anti-Nuclear power, Pleasant/Yuck, Guilty/Innocent).

The figure that follows shows two different kinds of distributions of opinions, one well distributed, the other quite polarised.


Figure 30: Informed opinions tend to be widely spread, but some opinions become polarised, with “no-man’s land” between.

We are more readily influenced by people whose opinions are close to our own; we probably find them easier to trust. These two charts represent the spread in opinions expressed by a group of people when asked whether or not they agree with something. In the first chart we can see that whatever opinion an individual might hold, there will be a fair proportion of people holding fairly similar opinions. It is therefore likely that such an individual can be informed and influenced by other like-minded people. This “diffusion” process could in time enable someone to significantly change their opinion as they become more informed.

The opinions expressed in the second chart are unlikely to be changed. The majority hold one or other extreme opinion, and they find it easy to ignore any inputs from the opposing side. More importantly, the few individuals holding more moderate views are unlikely to encounter similar minded people due to their scarcity. A typical example of this situation might be opinions on the safe use of nuclear power.

If we have an open mind, any additional information that we learn will refine our opinion and give it texture and depth. But, if we have access to more information yet choose to ignore it, or choose to direct our future attention towards sources of information that reinforce our initially polarised point of view, then our opinion becomes more polarised than the truth. Our personal youniverse becomes a distorted caricature of reality, personally satisfying perhaps, but offering little of value to a civilised member of society.

Sometimes we choose this simplification in order to bond with our peers or our community. A loose group of people or nations can be bound together with the clarity of a simple idea of an enemy. We have seen this in East-West relations during the cold war, in racist groups, and in the rhetoric between the fundamentalist branches of the major world religions.

Emotion is the force that locks us into polarised opinions. Without it we are free to change as you will see from the following example. Here is a slightly simpler version of the Necker Cube image that we saw earlier.

Necker cube

Figure 31: A simple Necker Cube. Our lifelong experience of 3D structure prejudices us to seeing a cube

We have a prejudice towards seeing it as an image of a three dimensional cube rather than the reality of it simply being a flat abstract image constructed of a set of lines. Furthermore, our stereoscopic vision must be telling us that all the lines fall in the same flat plane, but yet even when we gaze at the crossovers our mind still encourages us to believe that one line falls behind the other. This demonstrates that we gravitate towards a point of view that makes sense of what we see, despite the lack of evidence to support it.

However, as we continue to gaze at this simple image our perception tends to switch back and forth between two different yet equally satisfying interpretations of the image seeking a preference. Yet we don’t settle on one interpretation because it is no big deal which one of the cube interpretations we choose. We have no emotional attachment to any point of view, apart from preferring interpretations that made sense of the experience. Because this very simple image contains no information that might help us refine our opinion, gazing at it for a longer time yields no more information on which to base our choice.

In contrast, when our opinions involve emotions, they tend to become increasingly polarised, leading us to seek out evidence to support our initial view, locking us further into that position. We may choose to read only the kind of newspapers that confirm just how good our initial judgement was, or seek the company of those who agree with our opinions (or at least those who pretend to).

If you have experienced romantic love, you will know how the passion of a strong prejudice can take us over and dominate our thinking. Everything about our lover is wonderful, including all those aspects of which we know nothing. It is a prejudice that makes us blind to any information that might shine a more realistic light upon the one we love. Yet being in romantic love is also a wonderful blissful state that transforms the daily drudge of our lives into sheer magic as we daydream about our perfect partner. All our skills for objectively assessing the one we love are corrupted. We are inclined to score them one hundred percent for their beauty, intelligence, charm, and wit, and no longer need a sensitive scale to judge them by. They are our One, on a simple one or zero binary scale, (and our “ex” might be a Zero!).

When our romantic relationship fails, our positive prejudice can all too easily flip to a negative prejudice, our love can turn to hatred, for example when we find that our lover is two-timing us. As the song goes: “It’s a thin line between love and hate”.[17] So if our relationship has only two possible states, then we only need one bit of information to characterise it.

When we have fallen out of love with someone for some time, we may come to realize that their personality is more complex, and return to a state that is more discerning and less idealistic, and perhaps lose interest. However, sometimes the one who was loved now simply becomes the one who is hated. While the relationship is now denied, it is still just as intense but now 100% negative, and vast amounts of time, energy and numbers of neurons may still be devoted to it. This two-state simplicity may have little consequence if we never see the person again, but is often confusing to other family and friends involved.

Love is a drug, or so the song says.[18] Romantic love certainly exhibits many of the characteristics of various addictive substances; irrational behaviour, hallucination, immunity to pain, withdrawal symptoms (cold turkey), even suicide. Yet despite its disruptive effect we value it highly in our society. We consider it a personal tragedy for one to have lived a life and never loved, and marvel at the artistic wonders of the world that were created through the unrequited passion of romantic love.

This tendency to romantic love between humans has persisted throughout recorded history. It is seen between other primates too, suggesting that it has had some evolutionary value. It is now thought likely to have evolved to provide the emotional glue that binds a parenting couple together for a couple of years or so, long enough for baby primates to find some independence.[19] However, when we are in a much longer term active relationship, the reality of our lover eventually starts to penetrate our vision, our positive prejudice begins to recede and romantic love alone may be insufficient. This is when it helps to have a genuine friendship. Of course if we have fallen in love with someone of which we have little direct experience (e.g. a celebrity), we can sustain our idealism much longer, forgetting that the relationship is almost entirely played our within the confines of our head.

Falling in and out of romantic love provides us with an opportunity to experience polarised opinion and prejudice, and many of us have fallen from one polarised emotional state to the other without remembering why we previously held the opposite view. However, this is an unusual state of affairs. With most of our polarised opinions, we tend to get stuck in just one state.

Passionate polarised opinions are more likely to result in action, and in many cases these prejudices have a positive value. They encourage people to take a stand for themselves, or on behalf of others, to act instead of just complaining, which is why they are encouraged by politicians, military leaders and religious fundamentalists. But harm can come when we are blinded by the simplicity of an idea, seeing an unrealistically clear distinction between good and bad, between us and them.

As long as there is a continuum of opinion between two opposing views within our society, intelligent dialogue can lead towards appropriate and constructive solutions, as we are more likely to listen to someone whose opinions are not too far from our own. Insight can then flow easily in both directions, informing us, so we know precisely where we stand and can make intelligent decisions within our lives and communities. However, when we hold inappropriately strong opinions through prejudice, communicating with those of opposing views becomes difficult and often impossible. Furthermore our ability to learn anything new is impeded, since we can only see as far as our paranoid insecurities.

Extreme opinions are highly unlikely to be realistic views of reality, but such prejudices are particularly attractive if we have lazy minds. So we need to be alert to our own polarised ideas as these are the areas where we are most likely to be deceiving ourselves. For example, if I hear something good about someone who I don’t like at all, it can make me feel very uncomfortable. The clarity of my simple idea of this person is being threatened. If I am to take this new information on board, I will need more information than a simple good or bad to describe them. And dammit I felt so good about myself, just knowing that they were bad.

Politics is a spectator sport

There would be no game of politics without the supporters. Some years ago, I read the results of a survey that had been conducted among “backbenchers” in the UK. These are those elected politicians who neither serve in the government “cabinet”, nor the oppositions “shadow cabinet”, so do not sit on the front benches in parliament. They are therefore freer to express their opinions when they differ from the policy of their party. In the survey they were asked to name the current politician that they most admired, and I was surprised how many named a member of the opposing party rather than their own. I had expected them to be divided entirely on party lines, but it seemed that many of them showed surprising respect for some of their fellows, irrespective of which party they were members of.

Politics has much in common with popular professional team sports like football. For example, outside of the game itself, many top footballers treat the players from other teams with respect. The spectators on the other hand are more polarised, and tend have a much more negative view of both the opposition players, and their supporters too. In truth the economic success of the game requires this polarisation, and the spectators are encouraged to view the opposition as the enemy, with prejudice. This is particularly evident where there are two competing teams within the same city, many of whose supporters view the others almost with hatred.

Distortion of opinion is a major aspect of politics. People may be very clear which side they are on, yet when asked about specific policies they reveal a far broader the spectrum of views. The political parties need to distort the true overlapping complexity into a simple logical difference, especially around election times. They encourage us to decide clearly how to vote one way or the other, by much “rebel rousing”. We are happy to collude as we want the detailed political complexities of the world stage to be simplified for us, reduced ultimately to one of two options, a single binary digit of information, a crude prejudice. We don’t want to waste our time reading diverse political opinions to arrive at an informed opinion. We would rather be enjoying the pleasures of life, not worrying where to put our mark on the ballot paper.

When the party policies are similar, the party in “opposition” frequently become simple naysayers, almost by definition, arguing the opposite of every government policy. Simplicity and clarity come easily in opposition, but finer detail is required when in power and with responsibility, while the unelectable minority parties have no need for accuracy or realism whatsoever. If we the voting public, are to avoid becoming simple puppets that parrot the polarised party policies, we must take responsibility for learning more of the subtleties surrounding political issues, acquire more bits of information.

Informed political opinions are spread across a broad spectrum, yet so many of us have a knee-jerk tendency towards more extreme views. We may be very clear whether we are on the political left or right, and when prodded, may trot out the same tired old clichés, echoing the polarised mantras of the party we support. What is missing is our valuable informed knowledge, the truth of our wide ranging opinions on issues such as immigration and welfare. It takes an outsider to observe that despite our intelligence, we tend to act more like automatons, or Pavlovian dogs, regurgitating crude prejudices on demand.

Committed prejudice

“The simplest principles become difficult of practice, when habits, formed in error, have been fixed by time, and the simplest truths hard to receive when prejudice has warped the mind” – Frances Wright (1795-1852)[20]

In an ideal world, our initially prejudiced mind is always open to acquiring a clearer more truthful view. Negatively prejudiced judgements from the past can repeatedly be corrected in the future, for an open mind continues to learn, creating ever clearer insights. Our ignorance is not a serious problem provided that we are aware of it. As the Chinese proverb says “He who knows he is a fool is not such a great fool”.

Through laziness we may convince ourselves that the clarity of our simple insight is all that we need to remember, and forget the details of the original sensed experiences. Then our simplification means that information is lost. Only by remembering the detail in addition to our current judgement can we ensure that future judgements are not contaminated by our earlier judgement.

As I was walking towards my home this morning, I spotted what I thought was a dead mouse lying on the footpath ahead of me. As I got closer the “dead mouse” suddenly became a leaf, whose stalk had been the mouse’s tail, and I wondered why I had expected to see a mouse. Then I recalled that ten minutes earlier while driving along a country lane I had briefly spotted a dead mouse lying in the middle of the road, and this had probably primed me to expect something similar. Now, having learned that dead mice and dead leaves can appear similar from a distance, I briefly wonder if my first sighting had also been of a leaf, and then lazily decide not to mess with the past.

This is a trivial example, but correcting previous serious errors of judgement can be uncomfortable at the very least, for it is hard to admit to yourself and to others that we were wrong. In our journey through life, sometimes we burn our bridges so there is no going back; we enter the fortified castle of our opinion and raise the drawbridge behind us.

First Sight

In general, throughout our life we continually update our opinions as we learn more. But I am fascinated by the confidence we feel in opinions formed from negligible information, and how we so quickly forget just how flawed were these initial opinions, when we subsequently learn more.

Consider the experience of seeing or meeting someone for the first time, for example at a party, or interviewing them for a job.[21] Within a moment I immediately have a lot of ideas about this person despite the reality that I know almost nothing yet. I have probably resurrected some old stories involving people from my past, people who bear some slight visual or vocal similarity to the person that I have only just set eyes on. Perhaps I just subconsciously choose which of my old puppet-like simulations of people seems the best fit. It is easy for me to feel equally confident in my opinions whether I have three seconds or an hour’s experience, for a thousand times more experience does not feel a thousand times more accurate, though it may well be so.

However, it may be no more accurate at all, for our first impressions can contaminate our subsequent perception. If I am in a hurry to decide whether to pass or fail an interviewee I may have decided quite quickly whether to ascribe a one or a zero to them, and then spent the rest of the interview looking only for evidence to confirm my initial prejudice.

Some years ago I did a workshop with a group of Americans in California. As a visiting Brit I felt accepted and welcomed by all the people there except for just one man who was very cool towards me. When I asked him if there was some kind of problem, he replied that he despised all British people because of our colonial history and our role in the American War of Independence. I attempted to explain that I was not personally involved in that war and that it was a long time ago (it ended in 1783), but to no effect: The others tried to talk him round, but he was decided. I was a Zero.

It was a useful experience as it gave me a tiny taste of how powerless it feels to be faced with a prejudice for which we have neither the responsibility, nor the power to change. I am fortunate to have experienced little racial prejudice, being white, educated, and living in a tolerant multicultural society. However, I now realize that I am as likely as anyone else to harbour prejudices that I am unaware of.

His prejudice, born out of a war more than two centuries ago, was carried through time on national narratives. Memories of war are very persistent, it can take many generations for nations to forgive and forget because opinions formed in wars are so highly polarised. It is a military advantage to anyone engaged in combat, either as individuals or entire nations, to suppress all detailed empathy about our enemy, to forget and deny our common humanity.

Wartime leaders feed this jingoism through the media to increase the odds of winning a war. They may even describe another race or the enemy as “vermin” to encourage us to engage the crude emotion of disgust. We are encouraged to replace our rich knowledge of another culture with a simple binary: is someone our friend or our enemy? (Are they a one or a zero?). This dehumanises our morality to the level of the simplest bug, while retaining the destructive capability of an industrialised and militarised “civilisation”.

It is possible that this extreme competitive behaviour may have been an essential step in the progress of our species towards civilisation, but now it seems to threaten our very existence on the planet. We might hope that as we gain access to more information about our planet’s wider inhabitants, we might develop more realistic internal models of our fellow man and find the atrocities of both war and peace less persuasive.

Recent decisions to go to war with Iraq were made by people who seemed unaware of the complex differences between Iraq and Iran, and especially the differences between the Shi’a and Sunni communities. Acquiring those insights has now cost the deaths of many servicemen and vast numbers of innocent civilians. It has also created an army of people willing to be suicide bombers to revenge their humiliation. How many years will these dangerous prejudices persist I wonder?

Iraq the country has been changed forever by such crude prejudices. Indeed, it has been liberated from its very civilisation. It is sobering to compare what George Bush the US president knew of Iraq before the war, with what the average Iraqis (who were comparatively well educated) knew of the West. And now we have the ongoing mortal chaos of the “Arab Spring”. When it began, the West assumed that all Arab people would soon be united against their respective dictators, and now we are confused.

The penal system provides great opportunities for negative prejudices, which is why the system incorporates structures intended to protect against miscarriages of justice, such as “innocent until proved guilty” and trial by jury. When a serious crime has been committed our knee-jerk reaction is to want to know who was to blame, who is the guilty one. After all, knowing that the perpetrator is locked up can help the rest of us sleep better at nights.

When crimes such as murder, rape or child abuse are brought to our attention it is easy for us to make crude prejudiced judgements about the perpetrators. Raised emotions make our views increasingly polarised, and we become much more interested in punishment, than in rehabilitation. After all, we cannot imagine ourselves behaving similarly, even if we had been born with the same DNA, in the same environment and had the same childhood experiences, though personally I don’t know how I can be so certain.

Errors do occur in the legal system. Human memory is crucial to securing most convictions and as we are now beginning to realize, memory is surprisingly prone to errors. Many historical convictions that once seemed watertight now appear to be flawed. Recent DNA analyses of old items of material evidence have revealed that many old convictions are unsafe.

That is why the death penalty can lead to the greatest injustice of prejudice. It is the ultimate example of discarded detail, when opportunities for future correction are simply extinguished together with the knowledge within the mind of the accused. Some “one” becomes a zero, physically. While there are many ways of being alive, there is only one of being dead.[22]

For most of us, discarding detail is rarely fatal but it can easily change the course of our lives. It is easy to develop a simplified and distorted idea of something highly complex that subsequently prevents us from achieving greater understanding through further experience. My elderly aunt provided a good example of what I mean:

She was widowed and lived alone some distance from the rest of the family so I regularly phoned her to chat about what various members of my family were doing. One day I happened to mention that my son was away visiting Prague. When I added that he should be boarding the bus home to London at that very moment, I heard a shocked intake of breath and: “Did you hear that there has been a terrible bus accident there?”

“In Prague?” I replied anxiously. “No, Abroad” she responded!

There was a loud but silent “click” in my mind. The answers to a hundred puzzles from the past tumbled out. I suddenly experienced a big shift in my understanding of my aunt. For some years we had tried to encourage both her and her husband to travel a little, but she had always insisted she did not want to go abroad. For me the word “abroad” meant a vast place with every different culture imaginable, some peaceful places, others busy. Now I suddenly understood that for my aunt “abroad” was a small place where bad things happened all the time. Every day on the TV news she witnessed the horrors and disasters that happened “abroad”, she saw a terrible chaotic place full of strange people. At last I understood why she had no desire to go abroad, all based on what she had learned through the media. In her youniverse “abroad” was a small and very frightening place.

Once we have formed ideas about the world that make simple sense of it, it is comforting to have these ideas reinforced. We are attracted to newspapers and news channels which tell us what we want to read hear and see, tell us that it is “the others” who are responsible for all that is bad in the world, whether the other party, the other sex, colour, religion or nationality. Our media moguls have their own prejudices too, and probably find reassurance in knowing that a vast community of readers are being steered towards their own particular island of opinion.

Occasionally I pick up a discarded newspaper that represents one of these other views, one that I would never buy and perhaps even be ashamed to be seen reading. My initial reaction is horror and disgust at many of the views, but then I remember that some of its regular readers would probably be equally shocked to read the news stories that I happily read.


 “Civilized men have gained notable mastery over energy, matter, and inanimate nature generally, and are rapidly learning to control physical suffering and premature death. But, by contrast, we appear to be living in the Stone Age so far as our handling of human relationships is concerned.” – Gordon W. Allport.[23]

We might expect that people growing up together would share very similar internal models of the world, but a small difference in perceiving one “shared” experience can lead to an increasing divergence in future understanding. Every perceived experience modifies our ability to perceive each subsequent experience. For example, imagine that a pair of twin girls briefly meets a man and one is fearful, suspecting that he is sexually predatory, while the other thinks he is friendly. Each twin may then grow up with differing degrees of caution in their future encounters with men, leading to different options and possibilities in each of their lives. The smallest seed of an idea can change the direction of future lives. An anxiety can both protect and corral, and none can predict if such a prejudice will be valuable or not.

We develop patterns of behaviour, simplified rules that seemed appropriate at one time, but in the longer term become the cause of dysfunction in organisations, groups and families. Some of these patterns become unconscious traditions, so when people seek help through counselling it is often useful to record the historical narrative of an individual before attempting any specific counselling, as it has been found that the patterns of behaviour from our own childhood and from those from our parents tend to be repeated. Some difficulties can be resolved simply by becoming aware of our subconscious patterns.

Sometimes the pattern is to split the group or family into those who are good, and those who are bad. This may seem to be a useful simplification, in that it helps bond our relationships with those who we have decided are good, and simply ignores those who we have decided are bad. But real people are far more complex and unlikely to exhibit either idealised extreme in any of their many attributes. Most of the time there is no simple good and bad, but splitting can be a convenient way of keeping ourselves in favour with those who object to our broader friendships, and insecure people often promote the idea that “if you are not with us you are against us”.[24]

I have become increasingly aware that I am full of youthful prejudices that have not simply faded away with time, but rather become protected against by more recent and more sophisticated prejudices. So I know that my father’s political views lurk hidden somewhere within me, to be countered and corrected by the views I developed as I grew older. As for racism, I would be shocked if I was accused of any racist behaviour yet am aware that much of the foundations of my world view were laid down before I had any experience of non-white people. So my non-racism is largely intellectual and may not extend far below the surface. At least I know this so can be continuously on guard against my primal knee-jerk judgements.

To eliminate prejudice from the world is a very noble objective, but probably impossible. We all need to recognise that our lives are inevitably full of prejudices; the key question is whether we are sufficiently aware of them to be able to modify our behaviour and act in a mature civilised way. When we are free from fear, threat of violence or starvation this is relatively easy, but as we have seen in recent civil wars, it does not take much for us to revert to more primitive behaviour.

People debate whether mankind is making moral progress. Having seen how readily the boundary of our civilised behaviour recedes when we are under pressure, I think not. However, the combination of material progress and material equality makes it easier to be civilised, so progress in the former should help, but only if the latter is somehow addressed.

In this chapter I have tried to provide some logical insights into the mechanism of prejudice by considering the role of information; how little input information we demand before having an opinion, and how crude are our held assumptions. I have avoided any discussion of the morality and evils of prejudice because I have no certainty in those areas. However, I hope that by shining a light on the logical process of prejudice, it might help us find a clearer way forward through these dark places.

Perhaps prejudice is a quality that you only previously noticed in other people, especially those whose opinions we disagreed with. I hope that you can now see that it not just something negative, but it is the skill that most distinguishes humans from other species. It is experience-based-prediction, and as such it plays a huge role our own daily lives.

I have risked revealing some of the bizarre narratives created by my own prejudiced mind, for example while driving my car, hoping to show what a fictional world we explore when we are unable or unwilling to acquire more information. Prejudice can do harm when we are ignorant of its profound influence within ourselves and so unable to understand its causes in others. There may be little we can do to change other people’s prejudices, but with diligence we can gain much greater awareness of our own, allowing us to see a richer reality through our illusions and misconceptions despite the constraints of our learning bottleneck.

Humankind has achieved incredible technological progress over the last two millennia, yet there is little evidence of increased ability of individuals and nations to co-exist peacefully. Why should this be so? What have we missed? Perhaps the answer lies in overconfidence in our objectivity.

[1] From the essay: “On Prejudice” by William Hazlitt, British essayist, (1778-1830).

[2] From the essay: “On Prejudice” by William Hazlitt, British essayist, (1778-1830)

[3] From Latin praejūdicium a preceding judgment: Collins English Dictionary

[4] American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition, Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2000), ISBN-13: 978-0395825174.

[5] “The Unity of Human Knowledge” (1960), by physicist Niels Bohr (1885-1962), who received the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1922 for his contributions to quantum mechanics.

[6] Ken Jenkins

[7] “Culture as common sense: perceived consensus versus personal beliefs as mechanisms of cultural influence.”, Zou X, Tam KP, Morris MW, Lee SL, Lau IY, Chiu CY., J Pers. Soc. Psychol. 2009 Oct;97(4):579-97.

[8] “Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica”, by Isaac Newton, pub 1687.

[9] “Seventeen Equations that Changed the World”, Ian Stewart, Publisher: Profile Books, (2012), ISBN-13.978-1846685316.

[10] Elwyn Brooks White, (1899 – 1985), usually known as E. B. White, an American essayist and contributor to The New Yorker magazine, co-author of the English language style guide, The Elements of Style, which is commonly known as “Strunk & White.”

[11] “How are our Instincts Acquired?”, By Kuo, Z. Y., Psychological Review, Vol. 29(5), Sep 1922, 344-365.

[12] In the narrated film of the novel “War and Peace”, by Leo Tolstoy, also variously attributed to Edmund Burke, John F. Kennedy, R. Murray Hyslop, Charles F. Aked, John Stuart Mill, Plato and others.

[13] “Making Sense of the Troubles: A History of the Northern Ireland Conflict” by David McKittrick, Publisher: Penguin (2012), ISBN-13: 978-0241962657.

[14] Trademark LEGOLAND, a chain of Lego-themed theme parks.

[15] “A perspective on judgement and choice: Mapping bounded rationality”, Kahneman, D., American Psychologist 58 (9): 697–720, (2003).

[16] A Yorkshire accent is one of the many strong regional accents in the UK, quite distinct from a London accent or “Queens English”.

[17] “Thin Line Between Love and Hate” is the title of a 1971 song by the New York City-based R&B vocal group The Persuaders. The song was later recorded by Annie Lennox on her album “Medusa”.

[18] “Love Is the Drug” is a 1975 single from Roxy Music’s fifth studio album: Siren

[19] “Introduction: Love”, by J. Pickrell, L. Middleton and A. Anderson, in New Scientist magazine, 04 September 2006.

[20] Francis Wright, writer and reformer, writing in the New-Harmony Gazette, January 30, 1828

[21] Conclusion: Listening with your eyes, p. 254, in “Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking”, by Malcolm Gladwell, pub. Penguin, (2006), ISBN-10: 0141014598, ISBN-13: 978-0141014593

[22] If we exclude binary theological ideas of heaven and hell.

[23] Part Xiii, of the introduction to “The Nature of Prejudice”, by Gordon W. Allport, Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Pub. Co., (1954; 1979), ISBN 0-201-00178-0

[24] “The less secure a man is, the more likely he is to have extreme prejudice” – Clint Eastwood