Do preconceived notions lead to prejudice and discrimination?
Preconceived notions are two things right from the start: 1) impossible to avoid, and 2) often based on the truth. First, it is critical to note that they are often how we make sense of the world. They form our worldviews as we categorize things. Second, they arise from previous life experience. If you are an employer who has a preconceived notion that poorly dressed and uneducated job applicants are not likely to be the best candidates for a job, your preconceived notion is not necessarily incorrect. We could call this preconceived notion a first impression, or even “judging a book by its cover.” In a world where sometimes decisions need to be made quickly, few would disagree with this preconceived notion or fault anyone for carrying it. Malcolm Gladwell makes some similar suggestions in his book, Blink. It might be helpful to free the term “prejudice” from some of its pejorative connotations and think of it more in terms of applying one’s life experience to a situation in which one doesn’t know all of the facts.
Preconceived notions become a problem when we incorrectly believe that they are based on the truth, because preconceived notions also have a third critical attribute: they can easily become self-fulfilling prophecies. For example, a preconceived notion that black people are criminals is not based on truth. A preconceived notion that a higher proportion of black people than white people are criminals only has a resemblance to the truth because it has become a self-fulfilling prejudice. Prisons are filled with black people, it’s true, but it’s not because black people are inherently destined to be criminals. It’s because the above preconceived notion leads people to discrimination. Unfortunately, some such preconceived notions have become so pervasive that they are very difficult to break free of. Even if we know intellectually that they are not based in reality, our subconscious has a stubborn way of hanging on to them. This is the danger, where preconceived notions do lead to discrimination.
This is where we have to get down deep into ourselves, into our worldview and even our subconscious. We need deep reprogramming of our minds and hearts. The Bible offers us a worldview where we are all equally broken, and equally living in a broken world. Contrary to some who teach a Christian worldview of “triumph” – that living a spiritual life is one of victory over temptation, life’s struggles, and so forth – the Bible teaches a path of pain, challenge, imperfection, and even defeat. If we are serious about building this teaching into the base of our worldview and programming it deeply into our subconscious, two changes will occur in our response to preconceived notions. First, we will allow everyone the opportunity to prove us wrong. Second, rather than allowing preconceived notions to push us into a judgment of superiority, we will see ourselves on a level playing field with those we are judging. Though we pre-judge a person, we will accept them for who they are as no better or worse than we are.
Response from Aurelius
We approached the prompt quite similarly, and interestingly we both identified the dangerous self-fulfilling aspect of preconceived notions. You took it a step further by providing takeaways in the final paragraph linked to a Christian worldview, with which I have to partially disagree. Although the takeaways are valuable, I don’t believe that a Christian worldview is necessary to form them.
In my personal worldview, we all make mistakes and we all have imperfect knowledge. That is, we don’t know everything. We are inherently finite. Therefore, to your first point, we should always approach situations knowing that someone else may know better, that we might be wrong. An open mind should accompany us always.
I am hesitant to respond to the second point, because I do in fact categorize some people as better or worse. However, it is not based on preconceived notions. I categorize others based on their use of opportunity. We are not all born with equal opportunity, but we must make the best of it, maximizing the outcome from that opportunity. Preconceived notions may lead us to look poorly or judgmentally on those in less desirable circumstances, but they may have had little choice, less opportunity. On the contrary, those with tremendous opportunity that make little of it would be categorized as worse in my view due to the wasted potential.
By and large, though, we agree that preconceived notions have a slippery slope into prejudice and discrimination.
This topic piqued my interest after hearing two separate radio stories. One story was about favoritism, the lesser, more acceptable form of prejudice. A Yale professor cut her hand severely while doing the dishes and promptly sought help at the hospital. After telling the ER doctor she was an avid quilter, the doctor started to stitch up her cut. However, someone in the ER recognized her, addressed her as “professor,” and all of the sudden the ER doctor devised an alternate course of action. They brought in a whole team of doctors, including a famous hand specialist in order to give her the best possible treatment. The ER doctor treated a quilter much differently than he did a Yale professor.
We all analyze people through first impressions, heavily weighting factors we consider to be superior. Well-dressed, groomed, fit, good looking, smiling, warm mannerisms, speech, accent, associations, etc. From an evolutionary perspective this allows us to quickly ascertain how to react to a situation, but it can cause us to treat people differently in subtly harmful ways. Sometimes not so subtly, crossing the line from prejudice to discrimination. Favoritism reveals that our less-than-best treatment of those we do not believe are familiar or worthy is a form of discrimination. Treating those in our own networks preferably inadvertently treats others unfairly.
The second story focuses on white teachers in predominantly black districts that realized they were not completely colorblind. Teachers are more likely to let minority students get away with slang and incorrect grammar, and will even discipline them more frequently and severely.
It is all a matter of expectations. We expect certain behaviors from people based on our preconceived notions, and we are not always aware that our expectations influence behavior.
The Pygmalion effect describes this behavior, as evidenced by the famous Rosenthal-Jacobsen study and more recently in an Israel Defense Forces replication. Four instructors were told that certain students in their training groups had high, low, or unknown potential. After a week of training the instructors rated the potential of their students, and the students were also separately tested and questioned. Those with originally high potential scored 15 percentage points better on performance tests than the low potential students, and the high potential students gave more favorable ratings of the course and instructors. However, the original high, low, and unknown potentials given to the instructors were completely random. The instructors expected more of the randomly selected high potential students. Leadership and expectations influence behavior more than we know.
Response from Antipas
You’ve come at this topic from a somewhat different angle, but we ultimately agree. Preconceived notions are dangerous self-fulfilling prophecies. I’m curious though about the inevitability of them. I feel like it’s nearly impossible to really avoid them. Your question of favoritism makes me want to take it to the extreme…what if it’s an extremely specialized pediatric heart surgeon who needs her hands to save lives? What if it’s the UN Secretary General? Would favoritism be avoidable…or even should it be avoided?
Your thoughts on expectations are well-put. But it’s also a matter of analyzing worth. The teachers are expecting less from the minority students, just as the ER doctor is calculating the worth of a professor differently than an avid quilter. I thoroughly agree with your conclusions, but I would like to take it a bit further to emphasize that it’s not just the prejudice and discrimination that are wrong. The reason that prejudice and discrimination are wrong is because it’s ultimately wrong to calculate the worth of a human being. I strongly believe that we are all equally valuable, from the wealthiest to the poorest, from the most qualified to the most inept, from the mentally handicapped to the most brilliant.
This doesn’t preclude us from exercising some judgment against people, but not of their inherent worth. We can judge people’s actions, and criticize them, and blame them, but we’ve got to find a way to separate the judgment of people’s actions from the judgment of people.