On the foundations of prejudice 1

Copyright 1999 by Ralph E. Kenyon, Jr .

We have two built in mechanisms that favor prejudice.  Both are fundamentally important to living organisms that move.  The first is necessary to life.  The second is necessary for reproduction.  Both are unconscious.  An awareness of the these mechanisms, how they function, and their purpose, can give us a means for combating prejudice.

The first of these mechanisms is fundamental to mobile life.  It is neurological and is based in the very mechanisms necessary for mobile living.  The key to understanding this mechanism to look at the fundamental nature of mobile organisms - activity. 2

In order to survive, an organism must engage in the "right amount" of activity.  Too little activity and too much activity are both troubling to all mobile life.  Too little activity and the organism finds neither food nor mate.  Too much activity and the organism exhausts its ability to maintain its health, resulting in metabolic and reproductive failure.

Organisms move.  Why?  They move in response to stimuli - stimuli from without and from within.  A mobile organism that doesn't move dies.  It is the mechanisms for dealing with these stimuli that ultimately lead to or promote prejudice.

Stimuli from without take three forms.  Those that are to be approached, those that are to be avoided, and those that are to be ignored.  No stimulus initially falls in the later category.  There are basically two reasons for approaching a stimulus.  It leads to a source of energy, or it is leads to a source of reproduction.  There are two reasons for avoiding a stimuli.  It leads to a drain of energy, or it leads to a threat to reproduction.  If a stimulus neither supplies nor drains energy and it neither offers nor threatens reproduction, then the organism must learn to ignore it in order not to use energy that would otherwise be available for seeking food or reproduction.

Stimuli from within also take three forms.  They prompt an organism to increase its movement, they prompt an organism to decrease its movement, or they do not provide sufficient stimulus to effect either.  Increase in movement may be directed towards or away from an external stimulus.  Decrease in movement is primarily energy conserving.  As an organism lives, it must maintain a fine balance between conserving energy and obtaining energy.  Energy obtained is consumed in maintaining itself and in reproduction.

Stimuli cannot be responded to without senses.  Organisms have internal and external apparatus for sensing their condition and for detecting circumstances that may need to be responded to.  Examples include sources of energy, energy drains, potential mates, the need for energy, the need to conserve energy while maintaining structure, and more.  An economic principle - minimizing the cost to obtain a benefit - permeates all mechanisms for governing when to increase or decrease motion.  In an environment with limited energy, natural selection favors organisms which use energy efficiently.

In the context of a dynamic organism in its environment, the sensory processes must "recognize", that is, permit the organism to respond to, circumstances that the movement toward or away from provides a benefit to or reduces the cost to the organism.  At the lowest levels in the phylogenetic scale, these distinctions are "hard wired" into the structure and functioning of the organism.  However, at higher levels, process and structures provide for "soft wired", or learned responses.

In order for organisms to "seek out" benefits, they require an internal source of stimulus.  Some of this is provided by spontaneous discharges of nerve cells as they charge to capacity without external stimulus. (A nerve cell will normally spontaneously fire after a certain period of time.)  In addition to this there is the activation system which broadcasts stochastic noise throughout the nervous system.  One can think of this as like a throttle that keeps the engine idling or revs it up when needed.

Without a minimum level of nervous system activity the organism will simply die.  In order to survive it needs a certain level of activity and stimulation.  In the absence of input from external senses, the activation system will prompt the organism into action.  Restlessness due to boredom - cabin fever - is an example of the process functioning at our levels.  Without enough input stimulation, the organism begins to move around.  This moving around produces more inputs.

Some recognition is hard-wired in.  We retreat from circumstances that cause pain, and approach those that give pleasure.  With the remainder, our sensory system must be capable of making distinctions.  It must distinguish between that which is known - and classified in one of the three previously mentioned categories - and that which is unknown.  Unknown circumstances must be approached with caution - preparation for retreat - approached in order to determine if it is good, bad, or to be ignored.

At any given time, the vast majority of sensory input for an organism will be in the classification of to be ignored - or presently to be ignored.  (Do you want to approach - and consume - food right after a Thanksgiving dinner?)  Only a small portion of the environment produces different - novel - stimulation.  However, too much novelty in our input overwhelms the organism's ability to determine in which direction to go.  We experience excessive levels of stimulation as anxiety.  Too many new things all at once use up too much energy.  They over-stimulate our nervous systems.  Over-stimulation prompts retreat.

Our comfortable level of stimulation is a balance between too little - boredom - and too much - over-stimulation.  Too little stimulation is bad for survival; it often means that we aren't moving around enough to find food or mate.  We evolved to keep active, and we experience boredom - "I gotta get out and DO something!" - when we are too inactive thanks, in part, to the activation system.  Too much stimulation is bad for survival; it creates anxiety by threatening to overwhelm our coping mechanisms.  "I can't handle this right now!"  Under-stimulation is characterized by a lack of novelty in our environment.  Over-stimulation is characterized by an abundance of novelty in our environment.  Under-stimulation produces boredom and stimulates the organism to move around.  Over-stimulation produces anxiety and stimulates the organism to "run away".

It is this anxiety associated with excessive novelty that is the immediate basis of prejudice.  The presence of a member of another race or culture brings much more novel stimulation than the presence of a member of our own race or culture.   We experience heightened stimulation due to increased novelty whenever we are in the presence of individuals significantly different from our own patterns of experience.  We actually experience mild to strong anxiety when in the presence of circumstances different from our customary social and cultural environment.  The only thing that reduces this anxiety is exposure and experience - exposure and experience that allows us to learn that most of these differences are of the category to be ignored.  Once that happens, these circumstances are no longer novel.  They no longer provide excessive stimulation.  Prejudice is born in our physiological need to reduce excessive novel stimulation.

How can exposure to something different become non-stimulating?  Consider for a moment the ticking of a clock.  First we hear it loud.  Then it's just sort of "there".  While we are aware of it, we don't pay any attention to it.  Later we simply no longer hear it at all.  The process is called "habituation" and is well documented.  Organism rapidly learn to ignore repetitive stimuli that provide neither gain nor pain.  It's a waste of energy to pay attention to something that offers no immediate benefit or danger.  The rule of economic efficiency of benefit versus cost immediately applies.  As we are exposed to a different culture, and we come to know its rules, behaviors, mannerisms, etc., we habituate to the stimulation and are no longer uncertain or anxious about the people or cultural norms.  The differences are no longer novel ones.  Our experience with the no-longer-new culture is now habitual.  Stimulation levels will be reduced and there will be no longer any reason for us to be prepared to run away.

The second mechanism is related to our reproductive drive.  In order to reproduce we need to be able to identify or recognize a potential mate, and a potential mate must be genetically compatible - a member of the same species.

Again, we must be able to recognize such an opportunity.  We must be able to recognize members of our own species.  Other organisms which "look just like us" qualify.  Those which are too different do not.  The ability to recognize a potential mate depends upon our seeing one that is "not very different" from ourselves.  Too many differences motivate us to avoid.  (Too many similarities motivate us to avoid also. - natural selection favors population groups which don't inbreed too much.)  A potential mate must be similar enough to be recognized as the same species, but different enough to provide a good genetic complement.  Racial and cultural differences contribute to the perception of "too different" and stimulate avoidance.

Because of these two factors, we have a built-in prejudice against anything that is too different from ourselves.  This prejudice is based upon neurological levels of stimulation and on species recognition.  Both can be overcome simply by consciously overriding the sensation of anxiety - live with the feelings of discomfort during the initial exposure period.  It will go away as the exposure and interaction lengthens.  It does not matter that the values and cultural behavior patterns are different.  It's the novelty of this difference that invokes anxiety and the tendency to avoid.  Make the differences familiar by exposure, and prejudice will fall by the wayside.

If we can carry with us our conscious understanding of these mechanisms of avoidance we can use that knowledge to overcome prejudice.  When you meet or are exposed to members of a different culture, race, religious group, etc., remember that you will be being presented with a much larger proportion of novel stimulation than that to which you are accustomed.  As a direct consequence of this novelty you can expect to experience a mild discomfort and a desire to avoid or leave the situation.  We are tempted to rationalize this experience by judging those circumstances or people as "bad".  Normally we avoid things because they are bad; we also tend to judge things to be bad because we avoid them when we don't know why we avoid them.

If I know that I can expect to experience some mild discomfort when I am in unfamiliar circumstances, I can override my normal tendency to flee.  By doing so I experience those novel circumstances longer, and I allow my natural ability to habituate to new stimuli time to work.  My anxiety will decrease and I will no longer feel pressured to run away.  Because I no longer feel pressured to run away, I will be less likely to judge these circumstances as "bad".

Knowledge of these two built in mechanisms that favor prejudice and what to expect gives us the ability to combat prejudice through a process of knowing what to expect and a will to tolerate mild discomfort during early exposure to different races and cultures.  It's easy to endure small discomfort when one knows that it is temporary and why it happens and that the long term rewards will be greater.  Once the initial levels of uncomfortably high stimulation have been reduced by habituation, the different culture and race provides for an extended period of stimulation above the boredom level.


1. This paper was stimulated by a talk given by Kenneth Paul Collins at a general semantics conference and his February 7, 1988, paper entitled "On the Automation of Knowing within Central Nervous Systems". Ken specifically discusses the built in bias of nervous systems to avoid excessive novelty as a basis of prejudice, however his paper is far too technical and contains none of the metaphors that I use here. I immediately saw the theoretical structure as providing something we can use to combat prejudice - knowledge of its mechanics.

2. See The Philosophy of Mobile Life for a deeper description of the structures and processes involved.

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