THE MECHANICS OF PREJUDICE: What Changes When People Change?

When prejudice and negative judgments shift to understanding and respect, what is it exactly that changes? Is it the way someone thinks about someone else, or feels about them? Or the way they see them? Could it be all of that, and more? And, once we understand the mechanics of prejudice and its reversal, how can we help such changes to come about? 

In 30 years of working with corporate executives and their organizations, I have witnessed many clients experience fundamental changes in the way they view a colleague or a group of co-workers. These breakthroughs are usually accompanied by a great amount of relief and often by increases in productivity and teamwork as the energy used to maintain the old perception (prejudice) is freed up to get the job done.

Change: Our Touchstone to Reality

Given the state of our national productivity crisis, more managers—and employees—simply must become more fluent in the language and process of fundamental change, the key, among other things, to creating a diverse workplace. Since the time of the Greek philosophers (and before that in Asia and Africa) observers have noted the constancy of change. ‘The only thing that doesn’t change is change itself,’ as Democritus said over 2000 years ago. Our capacity to allow the world to change—and to be able to allow ourselves to change—is a now-crucial survival skill. It is also the way we keep up to date with reality. 

If everything is changing all the time, we should be able to see a changing world around us continuously. Nothing would appear exactly the same from moment to moment. But this would drive us nuts. So our mind creates a picture of ‘the way things are’ and then holds onto it for dear life. This is what prejudice is, a pre-judgment about some aspect of our experience. We make people and events into something we can accept and then live as if they ‘are’ that way. The good news is that we are able to create the illusion that things are staying still; the bad news is that, sooner or later, as life continues its ebb and flow, we can’t hold the illusion together anymore and have to let go.

Where We’re Coming From Determines Where We End Up

I have come to the conclusion that what changes when things truly change— like when a prejudice dies—is beyond thoughts, judgments, perceptions or feelings. These are relatively easy to change. In fact, they are changing all the time without any effort on our part. What changes when things really change is where these came from—our belief system. Where we’re coming from determines where we end up. The world we see does not exist outside ourselves. Of course there’s something out there. But whatever is out there—everything that’s out there—is filtered through senses uniquely our own. What we ‘see’ is a product of our own private and instantaneous interpretation. 

Each of us operates with a belief system with traceable origins. Its roots begin in our early family life and evolve into the sense we have made of the various experiences which came later. Growing up is learning what everything ‘is.’ The restless mind can’t stand having an experience without knowing what it means. For a fleeting nanosecond, however, each and every experience is just raw data, ‘sound and fury, signifying nothing.’ But then we label it—say something to ourselves about it—and that virtually instantaneous process actually determines how we ‘see’ it. 

In the Biblical creation story in Genesis, Adam is walking around the Garden of Eden looking at everything and says to God, ‘What is all this stuff?!’ God says to Adam, ‘Whatever you name it, Adam, that’s what it’ll be. . .’ And, as the story goes, ‘Whatever Adam named it, that’s what it became.’ The big question is, What was all that stuff before Adam named it? My answer, which is only partly 

facetious, is ‘God only knows.’ Just as the objects in the Garden were without useful reality to Adam until he named them, so it is with the world around us. At the instant of experiencing experience (sight, smell, sound, taste, touch, thought) we name it; we convert our experience into a concept—judgments, feelings, reactions, associations, reflections, all labels of our own creation. You could call the entire process of perception ‘prejudice.’ We are naming (labeling) machines.

So long as those labels remain in place, experience lives for us not as simple experience but as a cluster of interpretations which instantaneously replace the experience as it travels from our senses to our mind. Once we know (say to ourselves) what an experience means, we tend to go out and find it again and again. And lo and behold: it always ‘means’ what we named it in the beginning. We can count on finding data to support our interpretation. Our prejudices will find evidence to support their point of view. In fact, we can only see the world in terms of our prejudices. How could it be otherwise?

X Is Yet Another Example of Y

A formula which individuals—and even systems—carry unconsciously goes like this: ‘X Is Yet Another Example of Y.’ Whenever X happens, we ‘know’ what it means: it’s yet another example of Y (what we all know to be the case around here.) 

In the realm of diversity, for example, this labeling/naming process goes something like this: the hard-working, effective and productive woman or minority employee (X) is seen as yet-another-example-of ‘a great support person who is doing quite well for a woman/african-american/fill-in-the-blank’ (Y). The hard-working, effective and productive white male is yet-another-example-of ‘an possible executive-in-the-making.’

Reality as a ‘Mistake’

Before we can change this pattern, it is crucial to understand how all human behavior is an unconscious act of faith based on things that are not ‘true.’ Our beliefs result from the naming and patterning of experience into bite-size conclusions. The Italian psychiatrist Edward deBono has pointed out that the most efficient way for the mind to function is to create quickly recognizable information patterns. ‘It does not matter whether the patterns are right or wrong,’ he says, ‘so long as they are definite. Since the patterns are always artificial ones created by the mind, it could be said that the function of the mind is mistake.’ This ‘mistake’ is what we operate on. 

So, we are pre-judging everyone and everything all the time. Even when we like someone or respect them, it’s still based on a ‘mistake’ we call reality. We live as if that ‘mistake’ is the way things are. Our name for people and experiences allows us to relate to them but they also distort and mislead us as to what is really there.

From Belief to Action

The following model shows how we create the belief world in which we live. It also shows those ‘pressure points’ which occur in the process of moving from experience to action, where fundamental change, e.g. reversal of prejudice, can be created.

What we believe about ourselves and the world. Usually invisible to us. (This represents the mental ‘pantry’ in which all our labels are held, waiting to be used.) 

Our map determines what we notice. Now we use a label from the pantry. (This explains why we might see ‘leadership’ behavior in someone while a colleague notices mostly ‘aggressive’ behavior in the same person.) 

Here’s where the mind assesses, makes conscious judgments, determines rightness and wrongness, and answers the question, ‘What’s wrong with this picture?’ 

Now, based on that Diagnosis, we form an intention, whether by an elaborate intellectual process, by habit or by hunch. It leads us to consider certain actions designed to make our intention happen. 

With intention in place, we select from a field of possibilities (artificially) funneled down through the above thought process (even though it is mostly unconscious. . .) 

We do what we do.

This model offers an interesting viewpoint into human history by showing just how reflexive most of our actions are, based on a world that exists only in our heads. So long as we navigate by the archetypal autopilot of our perceptual map, getting ‘outside the box’—expanding our boundary of the possible, like seeing someone in a new way—is essentially impossible.

The Way Out of the Prejudice Box

The alternative to living this knee-jerk, unconscious life is to practice constantly examining and testing our perceptual maps and core beliefs. This, of course, is one of the most difficult of all human acts because, when we examine them, we do it through the very beliefs we are seeking to examine. It usually takes some kind of significant emotional experience to tear loose the glue between our labeling machine and what is happening. When this miracle occurs there is a breakdown of the formula we’ve been operating on. It doesn’t work anymore. Some piece of contradictory evidence crashes in which doesn’t fit with the map we’ve been using, and, this time, we are unable—or unwilling—to force the data to fit the theory. 

It is in this context that we can see how breakdowns serve as a blessing. Breakdowns, of course, do not guarantee breakthroughs. They merely introduce the possibility of fundamental change by introducing a situation where the old habitual pattern of thought isn’t working. By asking questions like these, you can open the door to sidestep your ‘normal’ interpretive pattern: 

• Who is this person in front of me, really? 

• What is happening here which I’m not seeing? 

• What am I saying to myself about what is happening and what is another interpretation which could be just as valid? 

• Where is my judgment about this person coming from? 

This line of inquiry stretches that nanosecond before our experience is labeled, creating the possibility that another interpretation might enter our heretofore air-tight belief system. Letting go of our labels takes what I would call courageous faith. But there is a big difference between the conscious, awake, alert faith which allows us to live as if new worlds forever await our discovery, and the dead faith which tells us that what we see before us at any given moment is all there is.

Reversing Prejudice

In all likelihood, organizational leaders can’t cause breakthroughs in people’s belief systems, at least not the way they can cause new products or markets to come into existence. What they can do is, first of all, develop their own capacity and tendency to listen to themselves think, to ‘catch themselves in the act’ of judging, and inquiring as to the source of that judgment. Telling people whom you are judging about the label which you have stuck on them, and taking responsibility for selecting it from your pantry (even if unconsciously), is a powerful way to open the door of change even wider. By modeling this new behavior, you can also create the kind of environment or space where getting outside the box becomes more likely. 

Fundamental change or breakthroughs leading to true egalitarianism in the workplace will only happen when we all a) wake up to the ongoing presence of prejudice in our perceptions, b) create an intention to see things the way they are (to ‘see around our glasses’) and c) actively participate in allowing our old, continuously outdated systems of belief to be changed by contact with a corrective experience. The best news: Since every perception represents a ‘mistake,’ then any moment can be a corrective experience. The more powerful the feelings associated with our perception, like disgust or fear or blame, the more dramatic the possibility of change. #

For over 25 years John Scherer has been an innovator in the applied behavioral sciences. A former US Naval officer and Lutheran minister, Scherer has helped numerous organizations, large and small, master change and conflict in order to achieve high performance. They include ACE Hardware, GTE, Polaroid, Marriott, Aetna, the Government Accounting Office, Ford, Northern Telecom, the US Army, New York Power Authority and many more. He co created the nation’s first competency-based graduate program in the field of applied behavioral science and created the Executive Development and Leadership Development Intensives, high-impact personal and professional experiences attended by men and women business leaders from 25 nations. 

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