Why we all discriminate (and it’s not why you think)

 

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The lines are the same length, but the illusion is that the one above is longer.

It’s an old illusion and as I’m sure you’ve seen it before, you can measure them with a ruler and prove they’re the same.

So why do you keep looking at them with the nagging feeling that they’re not?

[photo monkey thinking]

 

It’s all to do with your instinctive brain and your reasoning brain. Prof Steve Peters goes into this in great detail in his excellent book ‘The Chimp Paradox’, and it describes how our brain has two separate parts when it comes to making decisions. Your reasoning brain is your human side, the part that reasons things through, uses logic to make its decisions, and generally takes its time. For most major decisions, ‘human side’ does the job of taking all the evidence, weighing it up then directing a decision.

Sometimes, however, the human side feels a bit lazy. For some people, this happens a lot. When that happens, the instinctive brain, otherwise known as your ‘Chimp side’ takes over.

[photo people running from bear]

What does that mean? Simply, that Chimp acts on impulse, it doesn’t want to do the boring job of ‘working through stuff’ and simply wants to make the decision and then move on. Our inner Chimp was useful back when we were cavemen and there was a lot of danger about, so sitting around reasoning whether to run away from the bear wouldn’t have been useful. In general there are not so many dangers nowadays, but Chimp still forms a major part of the thinking process.

The problem is, Chimp’s level of education is the same as it always has been, ie, takes things at face value. One of those values is, ‘different is bad’ and the tendency to see the world as such is emphasized by family, peer groups, media and so on. There’s a saying, ‘People like people like them’ and people indeed will seek out company that looks, behaves and holds similar views to them. It’s obvious when you think about it. Who wants to spend all their time around other people who don’t agree with them? It would be exhausting.

Therefore, if you’re interviewing two candidates for a job, and they both have exactly the same CV and experience, but one of them is black and the other is white, and your entire world experience has taught you to trust one and not the other, what do you think will happen?

The worst thing is that while we know that we should not be judging by the differences we see , that is , literally, face value, that instinctive part of the brain is screaming at us, ‘but they are different – just look at them! Pick the one you like!!!’ That’s what’s happening when you look at those lines in the diagram. You know they are the same. We all know they are the same.

 

[photo black and white hands holding]

It takes an enormous amount of willpower to subdue that impulse and be entirely objective. As I’ve discussed in other posts, we only have a limited amount of willpower in an entire day and once it’s used up, it’s just quicker to take the easy option, the one that involves less thinking, the one that is most comfortable and consistent with our world view.

This is true for every kind of discrimination that exists, be it racial, sexual, disability, you name it. They are all just another word for different. So don’t feel bad if you’ve been discriminated against, it’s not that they’re necessarily a bad person. We’ve just got a few more thousand years of brain evolution to go.

You also shouldn’t feel bad if you see that someone is trying to treat you the same, but you think deep down they don’t instinctively want to. You can’t change that instinct – but you can help them, by acknowledging that they are trying, and respect that effort.

In the meantime, help the process along with peace, love, and understanding. That’s a language every culture understands.

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