Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Science of Prejudice & How to Overcome it

In Savatthi there was a scavenger named Sunita. He was a road-sweeper and barely earned enough to feed himself. Sunita slept on the roadside, for he did not have a house to go to. He saw other people enjoying themselves but he could not mix with them because these people called him an outcast. Whenever a higher caste person went on the road Sunita had to run and hide so his shadow did not fall on them. If he was not quick enough he would be scolded and beaten. Poor Sunita lived a miserable life.

One day, as he was sweeping a dirty, dusty road, Sunita saw the Buddha with thousands of followers coming towards him. His heart was filled with joy and fear and finding no place to hide he just stood, joining his palms in respect. The Buddha stopped and spoke to poor Sunita in a sweet, gentle voice saying, "My dear friend, would you like to leave this work and follow me?"

Nobody had ever spoken to Sunita like this before. His heart was filled with joy and his eyes with tears. "O, most venerable Sir, I have always received orders but never a kind word. If you accept a dirty and miserable scavenger like me I will follow you."

So the Buddha ordained Sunita and took him along with the other monks. From that day forth no one knew what Sunita's caste was, and nobody treated him with disgust and cruelty. Everybody, even kings, ministers and commanders, respected him.

Prejudice as a Pitfall of the Human Brain

Many of us believe that we can be completely impersonal and unbiased in our judgments. However, despite this belief, social experiments have found that prejudice and biasness can actually happen at such a subconscious level—and is due to shortcuts that our brains use.

The social experiment included this: People played a fast-moving shooting game in which they were supposed to shoot the person holding a gun (who is moving extremely quickly). While the participants of this experiment were told that this is a task to test their reaction and visual-spatial abilities, what researchers were actually looking for was social prejudice. The characters in the games were either black or white and either holding a gun or not. Results showed that people tend to incorrectly shoot a Black without a gun compared to a White. Even if they did not consciously process the person as black/white because it was too fast for them to judge, they actually shot the blacks more!

Going with the Flow

Now moving on, I would like to point out that a lot of times, we are biased towards another individual because we have heard about the person. “Oh, I have heard that she is so….” Or “My friends told me that she flirts….” , etc. Have we actually interacted with the person? No!

When we Put Our Brains at Unease..

We typically believe that we are moral, ethical, nice, sweet, caring. But a lot of times, because we are under the pressure of our peers to treat a person coldly, we become mean to this person that we have heard about.

What happens when we treat this person, say, Jan, in a mean manner? Note that while we believe we are nice, we acted the opposite! This puts us at discomfort—because our actions threaten our belief that we are nice, which in turn threatens our self-esteem. So what does our very smart brain do? We will actually subconsciously convince ourselves that Jan IS mean and un-nice. Hence it is perfectly fine that we are mean to Jan, since she deserves it. Thus we are still wonderful human beings.

What does this imply? Once we conform to social pressure of being mean to someone else, we convince ourselves that the person deserves this mean treatment, so we continue to be mean to the person!

This is exactly what happened with racial prejudice!


Another factor that fuels on our biasness towards others is this mechanism called the self-fulfilling prophecy.

Imagine that you heard that Jan is unfriendly, arrogant, stubborn, cold, demeaning.
When you meet Jan, you will tend to be less friendly with her than with other people you meet.
Because you are unfriendly to her, naturally she becomes less friendly towards you.

Does All These Mean There Isn’t an End to Prejudice?

Of course not! Remember when we do something that is opposite to our beliefs, we feel uncomfortable?

One way to solve our biasness is to Jan NICELY. We believe that Jan is bad, yet we have treated her nicely! This makes our brain scream: What on Earth are you doing?! You know that Jan does not deserve being treated so nicely!

SO, our very smart brain will find a solution: It will convince us that Jan is nice and deserves to be treated nicely as well! You know how people always say that to start feeling about something we have to act like something? Here it is! To start liking Jan, you have to act like you like Jan!

(If you want someone to like you, ask the person to help you. In the case that he/she does, he will convince him/herself that he likes you!)

So how do we prevent the self-fulfilling prophecy from making a biased impression of the person? Catch ourselves in this state of mind: Oh my goodness I don’t want to interact with her.. and be nice to the person!

Did the Buddha Have to Use These Methods to Treat All with Equality?

I believe not.

For one, the Buddha understood the impermanent nature of all things.People act in a way or another because of various conditions that made the action possible. For example, Jan may be unfriendly because her parents brought her up to be straight-forward and blatantly honest. When people meet her for the first time, they are cold towards her and hence she acts in a reciprocal manner. If people who meet her for the first time are friendly to her, she might just react positively to the person. Can you see how, when one condition is removed, the situation has taken a turn? (Recall: countering the self-fulfilling prophecy )

Secondly, the Buddha practiced great compassion and loving-kindness on all sentient beings. To act in a nice manner to break from the vicious cycle of social prejudice and self-fulfilling prophecy, we have to act with compassion and loving kindness. Only then will the person sense that you are being sincere and react positively to you.

Lastly, mindfulness has to be the first step for us to practice non-biasness. We have to be aware that we are biased, before we reflect on the impermanence of the action/trait of the person. Only then will we be able to convince ourselves to act with Metta and Compassion.

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