How can we fix it?

This week in class we discussed psychological reasonings behind prejudice and racism. Through a couple readings we discovered that humans categorize others through an implicit automatic mechanism. Without even realizing that we are doing so, we are judging a person within seconds of looking at them, placing them into pre-made categories that society helped us create throughout our lives. Stereotypes form these social categories, which then become further reinforced whenever we believe that we witness a person fulfilling a stereotype. On the bright side, this research shows that humans are not deliberately placing others in categories, or more specifically, whites are not deliberately demeaning blacks and other minorities as “less than” them. However, this psychological mechanism implies that human’s brains are hard-wired to act this way, and once there categories are formed, there’s nothing we can do about it.

Our brains perform this way in order to save cognitive energy. If our brains can sort other people into pre-made categories within seconds, there is more energy left over for other cognitive processes. This means that we are ignoring the individuality of a person we are categorizing, and rather succumbing then to the stereotypes that are attached to that category.

In my biopsychology class that I took last semester we learned about this same cognitive process. We don’t just use this mechanism on people, but rather on anything we look at. For example, for those who have no interest in birds, all birds are generalized in our brains. If we see a pigeon, we put it into a category such as “birds” with a subcategory like “ew” or “dirty birds” or “stay away from those birds”. If we see a vibrant blue bird, we put it into a a similar category “birds” but a subcategory like “pretty” or “get a camera quick!”. Sounds similar to social categorization, huh? If people who were never interested in birds took up bird watching, this hard-wired sense of “dirty birds” and “pretty birds” might actually re-wire into an appreciation for all birds and all of their uniqueness and individuality. Although birds are a very simplified analogy, if brains can be re-wired for categorization such as this, why not for social categorization? Maybe our brain patterns aren’t permanent? But how can we get people interested in social categorization like getting someone to be interested in bird watching?