Thoughts on Prejudice

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright June 2013


These thoughts have been inspired by watching Tony Kay's American History X (1998). Kay tells an interesting story of a family with "skinhead" sons living in the Venice neighborhood of LA. Kay does a convincing job of presenting the white supremacy point of view that skinheads represent. Sara Jade Woodhouse provided an additional link to a site, Are We Born Racist? by Susan T. Fiske, which discusses how much of prejudicial thinking may be inherited. And this is also something I have written about in my books Evolution and Thought and How Evolution Explains the Human Condition.

Where does our thinking skill come from?

All organisms alive today are the children of trillions and trillions of winners in what I call the Grandchild Test: You are a winner if you have lots of grandchildren who have lots of grandchild. This is a selection process and it means that all organisms on Earth today are a high performance fit for living in their ecological niche on Earth. For humans part of that high performance fit is thinking. Human thinking is high performance and well adapted to our niche. It is not a blank slate that can think anything equally well. It is a collection of high performance thinking processes, and there are some things that are much faster and easier to think than other things. The vision system is an example of high performance thinking; solving arithmetic problems is an example of something we humans can do, but are pretty low performance at.

Anatomically modern humans spent most of their existence living in what I call the Neolithic Village environment -- the Stone Age environment. This is the environment that our thinking is best adapted to. But we aren't living in that environment, we're living in the civilized environment. And the civilized environment calls for some different thinking skills. This is why learning things, formally and informally, is so important to civilized living. We have to spend a lot of effort on learning things because our instinctive thinking systems have not yet caught up with living in the civilized environment.

Why have prejudice?

Prejudice comes from two givens of the Neolithic Village environment: The small size of the group and the big reward for a successful betrayal. Deciding who to trust and who to betray are important choices for all organisms from single-cell on up. There are ambush predators in all environments, and humans do their full share of ambush hunting, including hunting other humans.

This has been true for thousands of generations, so human thinking has developed the instinct for what I call Us versus Them thinking -- we trust those who are close and familiar to us more easily than those who are strangers. This is a betrayal protection mechanism. "Face", "Cred" and "Honor" are very much a part of this issue -- a person with these can be trusted. And discrimination helps pick betrayal targets as well. Betrayal can be quite profitable so its a skill humans exercise regularly. "Gaming the system" is an acceptable modern form of betrayal.

Discrimination against strangers works well in the Neolithic Village environment, but the Industrialized and Information Age environments work much better when larger groups than small villages cooperate. This means humans have to suppress this familiar element of our instinctive thinking. We can do it. We can adapt. (adapting is another thinking skill we learned in the Neolithic Village environment) But we do have to pay attention and learn how to do things in the new ways -- learn in a way similar to learning how to do arithmetic.

Instinctive Thinking is Sneaky

Instinctive thinking is fast, easy and comfortable. This means it constantly tries to sneak in to our decision-making processes even when it's not offering good solutions. When we turn off parts of our analytic skills, such as when we get drunk or fall head-over-heels in love, instinctive thinking is ready willing and able to come back to the decision making table. When we face a strange situation, something brand new, something we haven't learned about yet, instinctive thinking is ready willing and able to offer snap-judgment answers. Using instinctive thinking to deal with scary novel situations is the root of moral panics and witch hunting.

Instinctive Thinking Changes with Age

The instinctive thinking of children is not the same as the instinctive thinking of adults. The instinctive thinking of young women (I call it Bride thinking) is not the same as the instinctive thinking of middle age women. (I call it Matron thinking) This particular difference is the source of a lot of comedy in stories about families. And senior people are not thinking the same as middle age people. This is grandparent thinking.

This evolution of thinking with age means that spotting a style of thinking in babes or children has limited significance when applied to adult thinking, and vice versa. Discriminatory thinking is a perfect example. Children are not going to discriminate in the same ways adults will, and they will not discriminate in the same ways as they grow up and become parents and then grandparents.


Prejudice is a form of instinctive thinking. It is fast, easy and comfortable thinking. It developed in the Neolithic Village environment as a way of protecting from betrayal and deciding who to betray.

Because the civilized world works better with larger groups and many, many more styles of cooperation, raw instinctive prejudice thinking doesn't work well. We need to apply a lot of learning to this instinctive thinking trait to transform it into a benefit.

And we need to be aware that prejudice thinking is sneaky. Even when we have learned to overtly reject bad forms of it, it will try to come back in to our thinking processes in subtle ways.


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