We process so much information everyday. The world can be so overwhelming. From the brains point of view, there is a huge need to be very effective and efficient with how we understand the world. This is why we use so many biases to shortcut our understanding of it. Without these biases we’d have an extra few tens of thousands of decisions to make everyday. We’d be exhausted! We should be grateful for our brains doing that shortcutting for us, but it does come at some cost. These biases include systematic errors and the particular one I’d like to talk about is one I find myself more and more on the receiving end of. I’ll call it the ‘which box do you fit into?’ bias.
When we first meet somebody, many of us will tend to ask questions so that help us put that person in a category. That way we can have a broad understanding of that person. Of course, this is an unconscious strategy riddled with errors. I do this all the time, and I’ve only started questioning this bias recently, because I’m constantly miss-categorised. Here are some of the elements which contradict the categories people try boxing me into:
When it comes our son's education, my wife and I are currently practicing a child-led philosophysometimes labeled ‘unschooling’.
This leads people to categorise me as hippy and so they’ll assume that I also believe the moon cycle I was born into has determined my personality and that I use rare crystals to heal myself.
I don’t believe these things in the slightest! In fact, I am a bit of a skeptic and put often far too much onus on scientific validation for almost everything. So then I’m put in the ‘scientific cynic’ category. Which I’m absolutely not. Skeptic? Maybe. Cynic? Couldn’t be further from the truth. I’m often told I’m radically optimistic. (I describe myself as an ‘option-realist’ or a ‘pragmatic-optimist’).
Then, the topic of meditation will come up. Something I practice quite dilligently. Q: 'Huh?! How can you believe in meditation, but not in astrology?!’ This is perhaps the weirdest confusion ever. One is beyond proven (at least from a neuroscientific perspective), the other, to me at least, is like believing Gandalf is real.
Ok, so I unschool, don’t believe in crystals, put some sort of onus on science, but I have a bias towards optimism, and I meditate but don’t consider myself all that ’spiritual’. This seems to be confusing to some people I meet.
Our desire to simplify the world is driven by an intention of ease, of speed, of efficiency. Rather than intentions of truth, of understanding the other, of hearing people out. In some sense, we could say that nuance is a minority view.
Nuance is a minority view because it’s harder and slower and more tiring. Our brains aren’t really built for it. As I’ve said, I’m guilty of the very thing I’m writing about here. And so I’d like to continue to make a concerted effort to unpick topics more thoroughly, to slow down, to postpone judgement, to meet people as individuals and delay my automated desire to categorise them for ease or simplicity. That way I’ll learn more, have a rounded and truthful understanding of the world and I’ll start meeting people for the individuals they really are, resisting erroneous categories like ‘left’ or ‘right’.
In this sense, the big intellectual challenges the world faces are entirely in line with the individual psychological challenges we all face in becoming better, happier people. For our species to learn to deal with the complexity of the 21st century, we must also learn to deal with our own inner worlds. Our judgements, our tendencies to put people into boxes, our habit of measuring averages…
What categories do you put people into?
What categories do you resist being put into?
How can you avoid categorising people?
Take care and be well,