Prejudice in the Brain

Arielle and I are in a very fun stage with Jubilee. She's not quite two years old, and, as people do, we have been teaching her animals and the sounds they make. Several months ago, I remember playing with her, telling her that puppy dogs like to lick. I then would tickle her and pretend to lick her face like a puppy. She loved it. Today, if you ask Jubilee, "What do dogs say?" she won't make any noise. She just smiles and starts sticking out her tongue, licking like a dog. I had no idea the powers of association were so strong. While she can accurately tell you that cows say "moo," and most children say "bark" or "woof" when asked about dogs, what has stuck in Jubi's mind is that they lick. Part of this is because her experience with dogs is limited. We do not have a dog at home. But even though she has been around other dogs and heard them bark, when asked to imitate them, her mind goes back to its first association: dogs lick. In a way, I have inadvertently instilled in my daughter a prejudice to notice dogs' licking instead of their barking. As she grows and has more canine encounters, her memory of me teaching her to lick like a puppy will be less important. She will experience more barking dogs and then learn that she can imitate their barking. There is more to dogs than their licking; she just hasn't learned to notice it yet.

All this got me thinking that when our experience is limited, our minds go back to their first associations. But how does this apply to me? What first associative memories does my mind use daily? It seems like relying on associative memories is a good thing. Think about faith and belief. How do I know Jesus loves me? Because "the Bible tells me so." This is a good first association for us. However, we eventually need to grow beyond this--to have more experiences that expand our knowledge of Jesus' love and make it more personal. I believe Jesus loves me because I have felt it for myself, not just because I heard it over and over in a song. Wouldn't it be a shame if we limited our understanding of God's love to what we have recited in the "Jesus Loves Me" song? How sad would it be to miss out on all the experiential knowledge of his love? To not write our personal stories of faith?

In this way, there is a danger in being limited by our associative memories. They can lead us to prejudice. If our first associations with a particular type of people are negative, this can only be overcome by challenging them with new experiences. To let one bad experience or one thing we've heard stain the way we view an entire group is the foundation of racism. What's worse, associative memories tend to build on themselves. Jubilee is more likely to notice when dogs lick because that's what she expects them to do. I am more likely to see God's love displayed in the world because that's what my memories highlight. But how tragic is it that the Enemy has taken this way our brains are built and twisted it so that we assume the worst in others. Wouldn't it be a shame to miss out on life-giving relationships if we did not challenge our minds' associations? How sad would it be to lock ourselves into assumptions that neighbors aren't trustworthy, that the poor are lazy, that refugees are terrorists? We have to choose to see more than just what we expect to see.

Travel. Meet. Experience. Grow. Expand your bank of memories of people who look and think differently from you. This is the only way to be free from our assumptions.


BONUS: If you'd like to actually see exactly where in the brain we weigh social decisions and prejudices, check out this NYU study on "The Neuroscience of Stereotyping and Prejudice," especially slides 18-30.