Mind Matters – Considering prejudice

It is natural for us to make judgments in the current moment based in part upon old experiences and information and this means we never enter into a new situation or interaction without the potential for unhelpful bias and prejudice.

The word prejudice meaning prejudging, happens when we judge, form opinions about a person and assess a stimulus as positive or negative, without a strong foundation or valid reasoning for those judgements.

Prejudice can have a strong influence on how people behave and interact with others. It can happen outside of a person’s awareness, without the person realising they are under the influence of their own prejudices or biases.

Bias is an inclination tendency, or particular perspective towards something, which can be either favourable or unfavourable. When bias occurs outside of the perceiver’s awareness, it is classified as implicit bias.

The way we make sense of the world is based on a desire to stay safe and make progress. So many arguments and disagreements happen because fear and resistance is thought of as irrational, someone who holds prejudice and bias towards someone and whose behaviour is driven or influenced by it is unlikely to recognise that they are actually, on some level and in some way feeling threatened.

Likewise someone on the receiving end of prejudice and bias is likely to struggle to recognise the other’s fear when faced by behaviour which results in them feeling threatened or alienated.

Negative feelings, stereotyped beliefs and a tendency to treat members of a certain group in a certain way are all signs of unfavourable bias and prejudice.

In society, we often see prejudices towards a certain group based on their gender, race, sexuality, religion, culture, age, relationship status, class, occupation, financial situation, language, appearance, body shape and physical features to name just a few.

When people hold prejudicial attitudes towards others, they tend to view everyone who fits into a certain group as being “all the same”. They paint every individual who holds particular characteristics or beliefs with a very broad brush and fail to really look at each person as a unique individual.

Prejudice of any kind is an adaptive, lifelong process. We have all been bombarded with a lifetime of influence from people, media and experiences that feed the thoughts and assumptions, resulting in prejudice and bias often without our self-awareness.

How to recognise your prejudices and bias – think about times when you:

  • avoid people, without knowing them well.
  • treat certain people differently to others.
  • overlook or dismiss somebody else’s needs, struggles and feelings.
  • have negative thoughts and feelings towards people when you are unable to pinpoint a specific reason based upon actual experience with them.
  • receive feedback from others that they feel uncomfortable with the way they experience you.

How to recognise prejudices and bias towards you from others – think about times when you notice:

  • people speaking for you without actually asking what you would like to say.
  • different treatment for example different rates of pay or conditions in agreements, being asked to do more or less than others.
  • feeling uncomfortable with people and in situations, where ordinarily you wouldn’t.
  • noticing that someone interacts differently with you than others

Different ways in which we can work on reducing our own prejudices and biases:

Travel – when we travel, especially internationally, we expose ourselves to different types of people, cultures, beliefs and to the different habits, values and looks which people have. We challenge our pre-existing judgement by facing the world that is different to our own.

On the other hand, when we are only based in the same environment and the community of people who have the same beliefs as ours, it is easy to believe our Truth is the only correct way to look at life. Always being based in one place, surrounded by the same people, similar to us, dismisses the possibility of broadening our mindset.

When we travel, we may realise that our behaviours are not biological or natural. Instead they have been formed by the habits we were taught to follow in the community we grew up in. One of the best ways to challenge our prejudice and bias is to go to a country where millions of people are doing something different to us and where we don’t follow the same life patterns or beliefs as most people around us.

Make friends with people who are different to you – by being close to someone whose beliefs or looks are different to yours, we naturally become more open to accept the differences in people and realise that it is possible to have positive feelings and understanding towards those people.

The more time we spend communicating and interacting with someone, the more likely we are to be able to understand them and reduce our bias towards them. This can include broadening your friends group by interacting with the people you have previously ignored or becoming online friends with people from different countries.

Challenge your thinking – write down different judgments or opinions you may have formed about a person, and see if you can find any proof or evidence for those judgments. Look for evidence that refutes your negative opinion of others.

Consider experiences from the point of view of the person being stereotyped. You can do this by reading or watching content that discusses those experiences or directly interacting with people from those groups.

Try to evaluate people based on their personal characteristics rather than those associated with their group. This could include connecting over shared interests and trying to focus on the similarities rather than differences.

Volunteer – by volunteering you are very likely to put yourself in a position where you interact with many people from different groups which are different to your own.

Obtain your information from more than one source – Remain alert to the influence of subtle stereotyping and other potential seeds of prejudice in TV, books, conversations between the people you know and social media. Start to gather information about other people from different sources, both first-hand and second-hand.

Research suggests that contact between members of different groups, particularly when that contact is warm and positive (such as through friendships) reduces negative emotional reactions (such as anxiety or anger) and increases positive emotions (such as empathy and care).

This results in more positive attitudes towards members of that group, as well as the person we become friends with. Extended contact with various groups can also be beneficial. This is where our in-group friends have out-group friends who are different to us, yet we learn of the positive contact and experiences that our fellow group members had with those who are different. There is also evidence that teaching people about other groups, and about the biases they hold but perhaps are not aware of, can help to reduce prejudice and discrimination.

What to do when prejudice and bias is identified:

Recognising our own prejudice and bias is often the single most important thing we can do to ensure our behaviour changes. However if you are on the receiving end of prejudice and bias then knowing what to do about it can be very difficult and your potential for action can often be very context dependent.

If you are uncertain then try speaking to someone who you trust to talk through your experience, situation and possible courses of action.

Nicholas Rose

UKCP accredited Psychotherapist

Psychotherapy, counselling, relationship therapy and coaching.

PGDip, MA, Adv Dip Ex Psych

Nicholas Rose & Associates
Counselling, psychotherapy and coaching for children, adults, couples and families.


Read more blogs by Nicholas Rose

Read the next in the series – Mind Matters – The power of nostalgia

Read the previous one – Mind Matters – If you have noticed a new reluctance to do things that didn’t exist before the pandemic then you are not alone

See all Nicholas’s Mind Matters blogs here

Read a profile of Nicholas here

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