Training the mind to overcome prejudice

Blog 20220308a

Social bonding is an essential and vital need for humans, bringing benefits to both physical and mental health as many studies have shown. Yet, in the age of social networks (which sometimes become « anti-social ») and an unprecedented ease of communication , the number of people who are isolated keeps climbing, leading to greater distrust and alienation. The health crisis and social changes linked to individualism have in fact led to an erosion of trust and an increase in division and prejudice against those who do not share our opinions, beliefs and habits.

Locked in our information bubbles, we live in a world entirely shaped by our beliefs, representations, customs…We perpetuate discriminatory and hierarchical power patterns through membership into a group based on race, religion, gender or wealth which oppresses those who are « different », the excluded ones who belong to another group.

The Internet also creates an illusion of knowledge. We think we can know everything, right away, on anything. As if a mere few hours spent surfing the Net, guided by algorithms which multiply cognitive biases and reinforce prejudice, could replace 10-15 years of study in a specific field. These days, many people dislike mastery and effort. But gaining knowledge requires long and rigorous efforts to confirm hypotheses which reflect reality and reject those which do not stand up against verifiable facts or logical analysis.

For Aaron Beck, outstanding psychologist and therapist who developed Cognitive Therapies and who died recently aged 100, “automatic thoughts”, the deeply rooted assumptions and biases which influence our mental states, come from mental distortions that can be questioned and transformed. The Dalai Lama often quoted his conversations with Aaron Beck stating that when someone is very angry, three quarters (at least!) of his perceptions of another person are distorted by his mental projections. Paul Ekman, another expert on emotions , calls this the “resisting period” during which we are incapable of perceiving any positive quality in the person we are angry at.

In fact a large portion of the problems which disturb us are mental constructions we lay upon reality and which we could dismantle in order to free us from the servitude of our own thoughts and biases. This is how we attain inner freedom.

In an article published after our conversations, Beck explains that “self-absorption – or intransigent egocentricity – deals in part with people’s propensity to place the highest priority—sometimes the exclusive priority—on their own goals and desires to the detriment of other people (as well as of themselves). (…) Their attention is fixated on their own internal experiences, they relate irrelevant events to themselves, and they are concerned exclusively with fulfilling their own sets of needs and desires. However, normal individuals often exhibit the same kind of egocentricity but to a lesser extent and in more subtle ways. Both Buddhism and Cognitive Therapies attempt to attenuate these characteristics.”1

The British psychologist and neuroscientist Andrea Kappes2 also observed at the brain level an inability to use information which doesn’t confirm existing beliefs, thus preventing the subjects from reconsidering the trust they place in their judgments and biases even if presented with evidence that clearly discredits their beliefs. At the same time, the brain records and uses information that confirms the beliefs. The tendency to pay attention only to what confirms our opinions makes gaining valid knowledge even harder. In psychology, this is called “confirmation bias”.

Humans thus have a tendency to disregard information that undermines their past choices and judgments. This bias as significant impact in many areas, ranging from politics to science and education. And nowadays, fake news abound and overshadow verified means of knowledge.

A belief consists in accepting something without proof. It can be justified or not. A blind belief is accepting something for which there exists proof to the contrary. Valid knowledge consists in adopting those assumptions which most comply with the body of reliable knowledge to date.

Sticking to a belief is much easier than coming to a conclusion derived from an impartial inquiry into the facts. Belief and its derivatives – prejudice, ready-made judgments, cognitive biases, adhering to opinions held by the group we belong to, the leaders we follow, the rumors, the dogma, etc – require little effort. It is an easy way to convince ourselves that we know something and to be all the more satisfied with it as we adopt a posture of condescending superiority towards those who strive laboriously to distinguish between right and wrong and come to valid conclusions.

Numerous psychological studies have shown that blind beliefs and biases are particularly difficult to dispel since confronting proof of the inaccuracy of these beliefs reinforces rather that curbs them. Leon Festinger is the first social scientist to have taken an interest in millenarian predictions based on extra-territorial intervention in the United-States. His popular book, When prophecy fails
3, is derived from his research during which members of his team infiltrated a group of persons who were predicting the end of the world at a specific date. Festinger showed the arsenal of ingenious defenses people used to protect their beliefs and managed to keep them intact through the most devastating denials. According to Festinger, “not only will the individual not be shaken by the failure of his or her predictions, they will come out more convinced than ever of the “truth” of their faith. They might even show renewed enthusiasm and convert laypeople.” In this case study, the followers gave their faith and their complicity with the alien group as the reason why humanity barely avoided an apocalypse.

As human beings we all have biases but also, by training the mind, the capacity to free ourselves from them. It is not a question of wiping them clean but rather of understanding their logic, of being aware of them and of being able to distinguish between what we know from fact from what we think we know. This means diving into the depth of our being, away from our usual agitation and anxiety, to reestablish a pure, free and serene balance: this clarity of the present moment, after past thoughts have stopped and before new ones arise, unaffected by the staging our our biases, prejudices and intellectual constructs.

Consider the ability a child has to wonder, being free from biases and prejudice and not imposing his or her mental projections onto reality. Let’s face the diagnosis : we must acknowledge the implication of our emotions, our cognitive biases and other hang-ups that condition our way of being, how we act and react with the world. By focusing on our immediate perception, what is happening here and now, we can overcome our biases as well as put ourselves in the place of others who are prey to their own mental projections.

And we not only need to reduce prejudice between groups but also against animals who suffer from speciesism, the denial of respect for their life, dignity and needs. For Peter Singer, speciesism is «a prejudice or biased attitude in the interest of members of one’s own species and [which goes] against the interest of members of other species ».

At societal level, evolution and changes in attitude have taken place even if they first appeared improbable or unrealistic, such as the abolition of slavery at the end of the 17th century. How does something until then considered self-evident become unacceptable? At first, a few individuals realize a particular situation is morally indefensible. They become convinced the status quo cannot be upheld without sacrificing their own ethics. Initially isolated and ignored, these pioneers end up joining forces to become activists who revolutionize ideas and shake up habits. At this point, they are often ridiculed or vilified. But slowly, some people who were reluctant start to understand they are right and sympathize with the cause they defend. When the number of these advocates reaches critical mass, public opinion shifts to their side. This is how Gandhi summed up this evolution: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, after they fight you, and then you win.”

Having read these lines, we understand that ethical choices are often complex and at times cleaving due to our mind’s struggle, but collectively we can make them by cultivating an ethos of virtue, of kindness towards all beings, and by making sure our decisions aren’t biased by our emotional distress or by prejudice.

To celebrate International Women’s Rights Day on March 8, we also invite you to discover the inspiring portraits of women who overcame prejudice and took a new place in their family and community. Find out more here.

I met Aaron Beck twice in Philadelphia. After our discussions, he published an article underlining the similarities between Cognitive Therapies and Buddhism: Beck, A. T. (2005). Buddhism and cognitive therapy. Cogn. Ther. Today, 10, 1–4

2 Kappes, A., Harvey, A. H., Lohrenz, T., Montague, P. R., & Sharot, T. (2020). Confirmation bias in the utilization of others’ opinion strength. Nature Neuroscience, 23(1), 130–137.

3 Festinger, L., Riecken, H.W., Schachter S. (1956). When prophecy fails. University of Minnesota Press