Shifting from Autopilot: Thoughts on the Mechanisms that Fuel Hatred and Prejudice

February 16, 2011

by Andria Woodell, Social Sciences/Psychology

I was driving to the Old Mill District when I stopped at a light and noticed the following image scrawled across the side of a vacant building.

I had an immediate emotional response to the words and entertained the idea of finding the perpetrator, kicking them in the shin and then asking them “what were you thinking?” Unfortunately, that is the point. The person who wrote the two words probably did not put a lot of thought into their action. I felt the need to blog.

In my psychology courses, we often address the underlying mechanisms that perpetuate hatred and aggression. Below is a quick summary of the main lecture points. I will refer back to some of these ideas in the later discussion

• The brain is a cognitive miser: we use heuristics (short-cuts) in our thinking so we can dwell upon more important decisions

• The heuristics or short-cuts often work, but they are not 100% correct and can be problematic if we do not recognize we are running off autopilot.

• Stereotypes are heuristics: they consist of all our knowledge about a particular group. We get this information from culture, family, friends, media and personal experiences.

• When interacting with others we identify them as in-group (like me) or out-group (not like me)

• We recognize that our in-group members may have a shared similarity, but we also see all the diversity in our group. This is why we get upset when people attempt to boil our identity down to a single stereotype. The labeler may come across ignorant, intolerant or we may get offended.

• We may not have a lot of experience with our out-groups so we rely on our stereotype more to guide our interactions and we generalize the characteristics to everyone that fits that label. “They are all the same.”

• Stereotyping is not evil. It is human. However, when people cannot adapt their stereotypes, or worse, begin to associate strong negative emotions to a stereotype, this leads to prejudice and discrimination—which becomes a problem.

Our own community often organizes a number of public awareness events on the issue of intolerance. However, you may notice that we seem to fixate on particular groups such as sexual orientation or race. Not to downplay the benefits of these campaigns by any means, but I think by focusing on specific groups we sometimes lose the big picture that any one of us can become a target of prejudice and discrimination simply because we seem to fit another person’s label. In class discussion, students who appear younger mention being criticized for looking like “teen moms”, white male students being labeled as “privileged and having an easy life,” or Latino students have had to fend off questions about their status as American citizens. Returning to my experience at the beginning of the blog, I think I might have gotten a much different emotional reaction if I had stumbled upon a homophobic slander vs. someone who was launching an attack on law enforcement. Occupational prejudice may not seem to be that detrimental because the person has a choice to pursue that profession, but we fail to recognize that intolerance on all levels is powerful and has the potential for severe consequences. These stereotypes and the emotions that build in an individual can lead to intense hatred for another group, even though you know nothing about the members. There are situations in this country where people have killed individuals because they wear the uniform. This is not a trivial issue.

What is even more unsettling is that people become resistant to broadening their understanding of the out-group and sometimes will go to great lengths to defend the correctness of their prejudice. For instance, it is easier to say ALL cops are bad, rather than put a complicated human face to someone that is not like you. We do not want to admit that the people we dislike are individuals with feelings, families, and pets. They are students with goals and close friends. In the case of law enforcement, they are active in our community and they are the ones we call to protect us and help us when things go horribly wrong. So will killing one cop really make the world a better place? No. It may actually be devastating, many and it would not absolve a person’s frustration against a larger establishment.

I recognize this discussion is much bigger than what can be covered in one blog. It is dynamic and multifaceted and there is no way I could even begin to get into all the nuances that exist with this topic. However, I wanted to reiterate a few basic points.

1. Intolerance is intolerance no matter where your group is in the social hierarchy.

2. I am fairly certain that we will all offend someone at some point in our lives because we all draw upon stereotypes to help us understand or relate to that individual.

3. When faced with new information or confronted with the idea that our understanding is limited, it is important we take a step back and find out what we can learn from each other.

We never have to agree with one another, but if we can begin to understand—then that is a start. Most importantly it is up to us to turn off our autopilot in order to stop perpetuating the cycle and to stand up to hatred both big and small.