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Retraining the brain to dislodge the 'multiple complex factors' that can form and fuel prejudice

Demonstrators held signs at the ATXKind Rally for Kindness at the state Capitol last November, in response to a spike in incidents of antisemitism, hate speech and racism.
Gabriel C. Pérez
Demonstrators held signs at the ATXKind Rally for Kindness at the state Capitol last November, in response to a spike in incidents of antisemitism, hate speech and racism.

Prejudice rears its ugly head in hateful and tragic acts small and large every day — from personal microaggressions to horrific events like this year's mass shooting at a Buffalo, N.Y., grocery store.

It might seem as if the false information and assumptions that fuel prejudice are all learned, but biology may actually play a role in prejudice, too.

Central Texas neuropsychotherapist Bella Rockman says prejudice is "developed from multiple complex factors that influence our thinking."

Rockman says some of the factors that help form and shape prejudice include:

  • Biology and "wiring"
  • Psychology and world view
  • Social and personal connections inside and outside the home

Those social factors seem like more obvious players in influencing the development of prejudice. But Rockman says basic biology has played a role, too.
"The brain sort of takes notes or cues over time to remember what are perceived threats and what is perceived safety," she says. "Some of the ways that are easiest to identify safety in groups is to look at ourselves in terms of what are the similarities that we have."

Over time, she says, people evolved to gravitate toward those groups that seemed "safe" or similar while avoiding or rejecting groups that seemed different.

"If we've been taught that that's a threat," Rockman says, "we're going to group together and say we need to avoid this [difference] at all costs."

Given the fact that prejudice does have some roots in biology, Rockman says there are ways we can "retrain" our brains around that hardwiring and work to reduce prejudice. Some of those strategies include:

  • Practicing seeing people as individuals rather than group members by making connections with groups outside our own.
  • Practicing nonjudgment.
  • Challenging generational beliefs with ourselves and with others.
  • Incorporating "I am" thinking by seeing ourselves in others.

Listen to the interview above with Bella Rockman or read the transcript of the interview below for more on the roots of prejudice and how to work to reduce it.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

KUT: What is prejudice? How do you define it?

Central Texas neuropsychotherapist Bella Rockman: We see prejudice as preconceived judgments that are not necessarily based on reality or experientially. They're ideas that we've made up about another group or a person. And these are opinions and attitudes that are directed toward certain people typically based on their membership in certain groups. And a set of attitudes in that person's mind supports or justifies having these prejudiced or these discriminatory thoughts or feelings about certain groups.

There are ideas that people carry if they [other people] come from different membership groups, and that can include racism, sexism, ageism, classism, homophobia, nationalism, religion, or even xenophobia, and even down to academics or intellectually and simple things like maybe even somebody’s sports teams.

Where do prejudices tend to come from? How do we form prejudices?

There's a certain biology wired in there, and then there's the psychology, like the way that we see the world and frame the world through our own lenses. And then there's that social or sociology part of it. The people that we're around; and the kitchen table conversations that we hear; the things that we hear as we're tossing a softball back and forth with grandpa or with neighbors. There are the things that we take in, and they absolutely impact our filters to the world.

I think that a lot of prejudices are multigenerational. Prejudice can be developed from multiple complex factors that influence our thinking.

We can all follow the thinking and ideas behind how media and culture and family and environmental influences can lead to adopting all different kinds of prejudices. But you also said biology. Can you talk about the role of biology in all of this?

Our brain has the ability to adapt to complex social situations, and the brain sort of takes notes or cues over time to remember what are perceived threats and what is perceived safety. And we have this complex network of brain regions that are involved in making social categories. Our brain will perceive ingroup and outgroup bias, and part of it was this clan or tribal need to stay safe.

Sometimes, some of the ways that are easiest to identify safety in groups is to look at ourselves in terms of what are the similarities that we have and then to gravitate toward those similar groups. And so the amygdala in our brain — it influences anger and influences aggression, and it also helps to scan and decide where there is perceived danger. And so if we've been taught over and over again that a particular group or a membership to a particular social region means safety, then we're going to gravitate toward that.

And on the opposite end, if we've been taught that that's a threat, we're going to group together and say we need to avoid this at all costs — and if we have to, even exert power over that group so that we can maintain our safety.

What are the implications of the fact that there seems to be a biological component here? Is that good news or bad news?

I think it's good news because it reminds us and it makes us human. I also think that we have the ability through neuroplasticity to retrain our brain. So that gives us some hope. That means that we can reteach ourselves to notice new opportunities rather than seeing them as threat; to notice new spaces for connection, rather than avoiding them.

And over time, in the same way that prejudice can be generational, we can pass down new generational ideas about differing groups of people to involve engagement and to encourage engagement. And that's the way that we cannot overly rely on that biological processes and say, "Oh, well, this is just the way that we are." But to say, "You know what, let's give ourselves some grace and some empathy because there is a biological component." But it also means that we have the ability to create some new neural repetition, some new neural pathways.

So I think in some ways, it can be a little daunting because it's like — wow, some of this is hardwired. And then we also know that we have the ability to evolve and to change.

 Talk a little more about that retraining the brain process because it does seem like that's key to the biological part. And, of course, the goal is to eliminate prejudice and not have people behave that way towards each other. From the biological standpoint, how can we impact, interrupt and retrain what's going on there?

It's important that we practice seeing people as individuals. People tend to see individual differences among members of the same group, but they tend to see those who belong to other groups as all the same. So it's important that we begin to understand and get to know the variations in the differences between people in groups that we're not a part of.

And so this means increasing contact with members of other social groups. This means being intentional about learning and making connections with new people and with people that you think maybe look or live differently than you or earn differently than you or have been educated differently than you.

I also think this means practicing nonjudgment. So instead of making preconceived judgments about people or condescending thoughts or shameful thoughts — "Oh, I bet they’re like this" or "I know how all of these people are in that particular social club or group" — all-or-nothing, black-or-white thinking – practice that nonjudgment. Say, "You know what? This is an individual person. This is an individual human being."

And then the other thing is challenge generational beliefs. Just because you may have heard someone growing up saying, "Well, don't run like a girl" or "all men are pigs" or "you know how old people are" — there are all of these stereotypes that sometimes we pass around. Challenge those, and don't only challenge them in your own mind, maybe tiptoe into the space of courage to gently challenge it at the water cooler or at the barbecue or at the family movie night.

Finally, practice "I am" thinking so that in every person that you see, you can say, "You know what? I am that, too." In every person who you see that is successful, "I have that potential, too," and every person that you see as desolate or you may see people that don't have a home or people that have certain sorts of differing abilities. Practice seeing yourself in humanity. And when you see that, it will light up those centers of your brain that engage with connectivity and with self-empathy but also empathy for others.

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