Reading Covers, Tossing Books

There may come a time in your life when you wish your eyebrows were denser and more prominent,  even more agile. I speak with foreknowledge – I had an intense desire to raise one over-arching, Nietzchean eyebrow a few days ago over a comment at lunch. My American friend was a few minutes late to our meeting, and he commented that he was surprised that I was so punctual, being Mexican. Since it is apparently not cool to be too hung-up about political correctness, I kept quiet and wished stale sushi upon him.

As it turns out, there is little statistical data on punctuality – most of it is anecdotal. A brief survey, however, reveals that opinions are fairly stable – Germans and Japanese are punctual, Latin Americans aren’t, etc. My own personal experience pointed overwhelmingly in this same direction. So why the facial exertion?

The obvious answer is that no-one wants to be treated as the average of whatever intersection of social groups they belong to. We are Individuals, chants the crowd. Our personalities are a result of our personal history and choices (as this one paper would argue regarding punctuality), not  statistics. We are entitled to Personalized Attention.

No arguments there. But treating each person as a uniquely special snowflake does not mean you won’t have preconceptions about her. At the very “best”, she will be the average of all the people that you know about.

What I’m referring to is called Bayesian inference (another good example is here): the idea that we use our prior information in order to gauge how likely something is to happen, and update this probability with new information. In the case of my American friend, he didn’t know anything about my punctuality, so he went with with what knowledge he did have. He knew I was Mexican, had heard about the average Mexican always being late, and made a rough estimate of how likely I was to be like this stereotype. The result: I was more likely to be late than not.

I’m not saying that he actually went through the calculations consciously – it seems that this kind of reasoning is even hard-wired into the brain. But even if he turned out to be wrong in this particular case, the calculation was the right one to make. These preconceptions work like any other estimated probability: the odds for winning the lottery do not change after you lose or win – we call it a bad gamble because the ex-ante probability of “getting it right” is ridiculously low.

Asking people to ignore all their prior knowledge in evaluating each new person is not only unrealistic – it is also enormously wasteful. It is tantamount to requiring that no-one learn anything, or at least that they do their best to avoid using what they’ve learned before. Surely we can achieve an accepting, “plural” society without imposing this kind of inefficiency.

A better way to tackle the issue is to recognize the source and trustworthiness of our priors, which amounts basically to taking anecdotal evidence with a fistful of salt. That means that your “I have a German friend who is late all the time” argument has to be discarded. It also means that you’ll have to accept the better established facts that you don’t like – the Irish do drink a lot more than people from other countries, and you can’t achieve anything you want through hard work, regardless of your talent.

Of equal importance is realizing that each new person you meet is likely to deviate somewhat from your expectations, just like you will probably deviate from theirs. The most useful stereotypes are those that describe a very tight distribution, with little variance around the mean (that is, as close to a universal fact as possible) – as is the case with the notion that people have less energy as they age. Even in these cases, however, it is unlikely that the person you meet is exactly what you would expect.

Despite all the talk about being free of prejudice, having preconceived notions about people we don’t yet know is not an impediment to learning more about them – it is rather a direct consequence of how we learn. Instead, it is our mistakes in evaluating this prior knowledge and our poor reasoning that generates bigotry. Ultimately, it is not prejudice that we should be raising our eyebrows at – only dumb prejudice.

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2 comments

  1. Sandra

    I think there´s a difference between prejudice and stereotypes… stereotypes are based in existing and often measurable characteristics of a certain group… they can even be useful tools to deal with the complexity of the world,(and they´re fun)… prejudices tend to be more abstract, most of the time based in personal beliefs and frequently they carry a moral judgement… So I would say it is not stereotypes that we should be raising our eyebrows at – only perjudice… dumb prejudice.

  2. Daniel Silveyra

    Thanks S.,

    Its a good idea to distinguish between the terms prejudice, pre-conception and stereotypes, which I use more or less interchangeably and can get quite messy.

    What I mean by…

    Prejudice: Literally a prior judgment over a person, situation, etc. It has very negative connotations but these are precisely what I’m arguing against.

    Preconception: The “clean” version of the above. That’s why I use it the most.

    Stereotype: A culturally engendered preconception. Formally, “a commonly held public belief about specific social groups, or types of individuals”

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