Does Learning Create Prejudice?

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This remarkable storehouse of knowledge (some conscious, some not) has been built up from our past personal experience, our interaction with others, and what we have learned from other media. We carry our past with us, all these shortcuts for living.

Learning Shortcuts

It impresses me how much we learn. From the everyday (like walking, speaking, and codes of etiquette) to the arts (music, painting, sculpture, garden design) to our ways of working and our forms of recreation, we learn so much. As people, we learn how to live.

This learning is mostly done outside of school. It is knowledge passed on informally and repeatedly — all those reminders to children to say thanks, all those little instructions on how to do things, the time taken to get used to a workplace or to the unstated rules of a sporting code.

By the time we are adults, we have learned an extraordinary amount about an incredible range of things. That we have all managed to do this doesn’t make it any less extraordinary. We overlook these remarkable achievements because they are so ordinary. But when we contemplate how much we know, it is a great range of stuff.

As adults we have a repertoire of routines, ideas and habits that mean we usually live fairly well in our culture. In some ways, this repertoire is a storehouse of shortcuts. We don’t need to check that traffic lights are red, amber, green; we know how to greet strangers; and we know that we read English from left to right.

The Past and What’s New

This remarkable storehouse of knowledge (some conscious, some not) has been built up from our past personal experience, our interaction with others, and what we have learned from other media. We carry our past with us, all these shortcuts for living.

These shortcuts can be a problem. Sometimes we come across an item or thought or experience that is quite new to us. I remember when I first came across the idea (in a book by Eric Berne) of characterising people by their physiology — ectomorph, endomorph and mesomorph. I had never seen these words before, and nothing in my upbringing had suggested this way of viewing people. Falling in love for the first time was also unexpected. I knew from others about the intensity. What I was unprepared for was the sense of ‘cosmic chosenness’ — the sense of specialness. (All those moralising reflections on being in love as a kind of idolatry certainly had an element of truth in my experience.)

All that stored experience and all those shortcuts (which allow most of us to live fairly well most of the time) leave us unprepared for what is new. The new comes as something of a challenge to what we already know. And we often try to fit the new into the old.

When we try to comprehend the new, we can try to fit it to our past experiences. Sometimes this is possible: what looks like a new form of art may be the elaboration of an old technique. (Abstraction in visual art wasn’t entirely new. Every painter had simplified what was seen to represent it on canvas — which reputedly lead Picasso to say that all art is abstract.) Sometimes, like my experience of characterising people by their physiology, the new doesn’t fit with our existing way of thinking. In this case we try to compare it with our experience. I set about trying to think of people I knew with these kinds of physiology and seeing whether they fitted the descriptions of these types.

Mistakes

Sometimes we think that the new resembles the old. Those of us who write online are in the process of finding out how different this new way of reading and writing may be. It feels true to me that it is different to reading printed books or scanning newspapers. It has been said that posts on blogs aren’t so much read or scanned as mined. By the time someone has searched for something in a search engine, scanned the various results, perhaps sampled and rejected some of the results — by the time they get to the information they want — they are quite focused. This is different to what may be a more leisurely approach to a book or the more casual scanning of a newspaper.

It seems to me that it is a mistake to see reading and writing online as being the same as reading and writing books. It is fascinating to me to try and describe the difference — and to watch the new form develop. It seems to me that we are still finding out about the length and tone and organisation that will characterise this new way of reading and writing and exchanging our thoughts.

A common source of mistakes can be idioms in our language. In Australia, “see you later” means farewell. An English exchange teacher was observed sitting in an Australian classroom long after classes had finished for the day because they were waiting for the Australian who had told them that they would see them later. The Australian and the English person both thought they knew what they were saying. But their past experiences (of the English language in their different countries) lead to a mistake.

Prejudice

In one sense, all these shortcuts of ours verge on prejudice. Their usefulness in one sense is that they prejudge the situation. We know what colours the traffic lights will be in advance — we judge the situation before we get to it. And when someone flagrantly disobeys the road rules, we can be shocked: the person disobeying has shown us our prejudice (that people obey the road rules).

I’m not sure that I can neatly describe the difference between prejudice, mistakes and learning. My feeling is that it has to do with an element of judgement. We are prejudiced when we don’t investigate the new thing and when we judge it as bad or inferior — which means that we are not inclined to investigate the new thing any further. I think that the polar opposite of prejudice is curiosity — wanting to know more about what is new to us.

I would like to know if you have discovered a prejudice of your own. If so, how did you discover that it was a prejudice?

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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