I wonder while I wander

…musings about this wild and wonderful world


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Oops, I fell into the prejudice trap (again)

I recently wrote a post about the way we let our prejudices prevent us from honestly considering new ideas and alternate opinions; about how we assess potentially new information based on what we want to believe, rather than simply looking at the facts.

Lest you think I’m being preachy and just pointing out flaws in other people, I’d like to share an example of this type of biased and prejudicial thinking in my own life.

I watched a TED talk last week about the evolution of human sexuality which was really excellent and worth at least one post of its own, so I won’t go into details about it now. The speaker was very engaging, well-spoken and humorous. He said some things that chimed well with beliefs and ideas I’d already formed, and I very much agreed with his open-minded approach to the whole topic.

In fact, I found it all so interesting, I immediately had a look on Amazon for his book, so I could read more extensively about his theories and research findings. While checking out some reviews I came across another book by a different author, written as a direct refutation of the first guy’s work and proposing some different views and conclusions.  By further investigating on the internet, it seems these two thinkers have a personal dislike of each other as well as conflicting views on human sexuality.

What I found most interesting in all this was how strongly I reacted in favour of one author and how ready I was to dismiss the other. When browsing on Amazon, I read numerous positive reviews and a few negative ones about each of the books, so in this respect, they looked about even. However, because I’d had an enjoyable 14 minutes watching the first author present his ideas, and maybe even just because I actually came across him and his ideas first, I had already formed a prejudice in his favour. He was clearly ‘more right’ than the other author, and I also felt that I liked her a bit less, because she clearly had it out for this intelligent, funny man I had heard speak. Seriously, what was her problem?

All of this happened in the space of about 20 minutes.

(1) I had been introduced to an idea, (2) learned there was some controversy about it, (3) decided which anthropological study was more valid based on my judgement of the presenters perceived likeability, (4) discounted the opposition as irrelevant and false without actually knowing what her position was, and (5) was eager to share my new ‘expert’ knowledge and new ‘correct’ understanding of an incredibly complex topic with the rest of the world. My oh my, the brain works quickly!

What!? She came to overly hasty and irrationally biased conclusions again? Nooooo! Make it stop!

What!? She came to overly hasty, irrational and biased conclusions again? Nooooo! Make it stop!

Fortunately for me, almost as quickly as I formed all those thoughts and prejudices, I realised what I was doing, and could have a bit of a laugh at how hasty and unreasonable I was being. At least by recognising the conclusions my brain was jumping to, I could take a step back from my initial reaction and try to look at things more rationally. 

To cut myself some slack, I think we, as humans, are hard-wired to make hasty judgements about many things. I mean, if a lion is running towards you, you do NOT want to take a deep breath and try to make a slow and deliberate assessment of the situation, draw a chart outlining your options and the pros and cons of each, or sit and ponder whether or not you are judging the actions and motivations of this particular lion unfairly. You want to make a hasty judgement and get the hell away from that lion!

Even in non-life-or-death situations, if we really thought deeply and logically analysed every bit of information and every experience we went through in life, we’d have no time for actually eating, sleeping, performing a job, just living! It would be complete overkill and ‘ain’t nobody got time for that’ (as the saying goes)!

So, I’m saying it isn’t surprising that we do this. It’s no shock at all that we want to take mental short cuts, make hasty judgements based on what we already know and believe, and just want to get on with our lives. There are many situations where this tendency doesn’t matter too much, or can even be helpful.

However, there are certainly times when it is detrimental to making wise decisions. I know that in my own life it means I can be a bit (or sometimes very!) judgemental towards people who think differently than I do. It also means that during conversation I sometimes don’t truly listen to what others are saying because I’m not really interested in their opinions; I’m just waiting to say what I think and ‘save’ them from the error of their ways!

At the end of the day, I think that developing an awareness of our prejudices and the way our minds work is a necessary first step towards becoming more balanced and fair when seeking out facts and listening to the views of others. It’s a key move towards better communication and deeper understanding with our fellow humans.

One has to start somewhere, after all!

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Challenging our views…

I am currently a member of a parenting network online, in which members share stories and experiences and ask for parenting advice via email. I’ve learned some wonderful things from people in this community and I feel, without a doubt, that these are good, sincere, thoughtful and intelligent folks. I have really enjoyed learning from and getting know this lovely group.

That being said, I would like to share a brief exchange that occurred during an email ‘conversation’ between a few members of this online community, because I think it is an interesting example of the way people make decisions about what is true and false.

One person initiated this email conversation by mentioning a recent scientific study she’d read which looked at the differences between a large number people who were either breastfed or bottle-fed in infancy. The study measured differences in a wide variety of characteristics, such as intelligence, health, obesity in adulthood, among others. These characteristics were compared between breast- and bottle-fed children, both from different families, and within families (i.e. one sibling was breastfed and his/her sibling was bottle-fed). According to the brief summary this first person shared, the study seemed to say siblings fed with different methods showed no significant differences in health, intelligence and whatnot, although there were differences between children from different families, showing advantages for those who were breastfed.

Why might this be significant? Because it might mean breastfeeding is not be the sole cause of these advantages; instead, other factors like socio-economic status, wealth, education, culture, geographic location and ethnicity of parents may be the key. In other words, breastfeeding and better health or intelligence may be co-related, rather than breastfeeding being the direct cause of  all of these benefits.

Now, I have yet to read the entire study, so this is just a summary of what I was told it was about. As a disclaimer: I am not making any claims whatsoever in this post about the pros/cons of breastfeeding vs bottlefeeding! I am not recommending you do one or the other. That is absolutely not the point of what I’m trying to say here!

So, what is my point then? I’m glad you asked!

I was actually more interested in the reaction I saw to the mere mention of this study’s findings, coming almost entirely from people who hadn’t even read it yet!

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‘An attitude of openness, the willingness to recognize and accept the diversity of human experience and the spiritual values of other traditions and cultures, is essential in the practice of non-violence. We create true peace when we are inclusive of others. Yet inclusion and nonattachment to our opinions are sometimes difficult to practice. Exclusion, getting caught up my our views, is a deep-seated habit that arises from fear and misunderstanding of others. To transform our habit of excluding others, we must practice and develop understanding and compassion in all parts of our life.’

~ Thich Nhat Hanh, in Creating True Peace

There is a well known saying that it is better to be kind than to be right. I believe this is true, and yet, it can be such a challenge to really live out this belief. If you’re like me, you’ve invested a lot of time and effort into forming your particular beliefs and worldview, and these beliefs become an essential part of our concept of ourselves. In fact, it can feel that what we think and feel and believe is our True Self. It can be painful, frustrating, seemingly impossible to take a step back from those beliefs, to honestly attempt to understand the views of others, especially those we disagree with, and those who think or live in a way that conflicts with our beliefs.

If we are to live peacefully, peace cannot be just a concept. It must be a practice. It must be something we do. We must make it real. What steps can we take to create peace in our everyday lives? Is it truly possible to put our beliefs and opinions aside in order to connect in a heartfelt way with those who are different from us? What are the practical things we can do in our lives to grow in compassion and understanding with other people? 

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