Can you answer these questions with a yes or no? Do black lives matter? Is slavery abhorrent? Is segregation immoral? Is discrimination unfair? Is violence acceptable? Is vandalism anti-social? On the surface, the answers to these and many other questions are seemingly obvious. But they are only immediately obvious to you based on your beliefs and attitudes. Your answers will be a reflection of your personal bias, your social environment, and the media coverage of what has been happening lately in the US and the UK.

In reality, there are no simple answers that are always and absolutely true. Sometimes it is worth thinking about issues before giving knee-jerk responses or reactions. In this post and the next, I will try to do exactly that. This week I will talk about bias and how it is a natural human characteristic. How it is necessary for our everyday lives and our survival as a species. Only by accepting that we all have bias can we understand the impact of it on our fellow humans and learn how we might be able to deal with its consequences. That will be for next week.


I’m going to use the single, short word ‘bias’ to describe three connected ideas. They are ‘stereotype’, ‘prejudice’, and ‘discrimination’. I am going to try and show that we are all biased and that bias is not necessarily bad, wrong, immoral, unethical or harmful. On the contrary, bias is an essential part of human nature. Stereotypes are the common characteristics and attributes that we apply to all individual members of a category or group of things or people. Those generalisations are not and cannot be true for every individual in the group. Prejudice is the attitude we take towards the individuals and the group based how we feel about them. Discrimination is the different behaviour we display towards the individual or group based on our attitude. All this takes place in our subconscious minds, we are not aware of it, we don’t think about it.


Stereotyping is essential for humans to reduce the complexity of living to manageable proportions. We cannot possibly know or retain detailed information about every individual thing or person that we might come across in our daily lives. We use stereotypes to help us recognise what something or somebody is probably like as an individual entity, even though we can’t know for sure. We put things in categories based on certain identifiable characteristics and we infer many other characteristics from that categorisation. For example, we identify a big cat by what it looks like and, if it has stripes, we see a tiger. We infer that it is strong, fast, has big teeth and eats meat.

I don’t know about you, but I have never encountered a tiger in the wild. I do have a stereotype tiger in my mind and one day that might be useful. Something we use every day is the stereotype of ‘seat’. We know that a seat is something we sit on, but how do we recognise that something is a seat and not a table? We have certain characteristics in our minds that are common to all seats, a certain form, a height, a position. We look at an object and, if it has those characteristics, we infer that it is something to sit on, that it will hold us up and be comfortable. Sometimes we discover that we are wrong, it is uncomfortable, or it collapses, or it’s not a seat.

It has taken me much longer to describe this recognition process than it would take you to recognise the seat. That is the benefit of categorisation or stereotyping. We cannot live without it. If we had to work something out afresh every time, we would not survive. Apart from anything else, the tiger might have eaten us.


Prejudice, our attitude towards either an individual or category is something we learn, it develops. That learning may be by personal experience with something or someone we know well or it may be based on second-hand information if not. I am talking here about our attitude towards a stereotype, by definition what we don’t know well on an individual basis. We form an attitude towards a category based on what we see and hear from others. This starts with our parents and siblings, develops through school, friends, church, television, social media and so on, all those inputs that influence our thinking. As a result, our feelings are likely to be a reflection of the general feelings that surround us, especially of those closest to us.

Human nature, the survival instinct, influences our attitudes in particular directions. We see the worst in things because it works. For example, should you be afraid of a tiger? You can fear it or not. The tiger can be deadly or not. If you fear it and shoot it, you’re 100% safe. If you don’t fear it and do nothing, you’re 50% safe. The best option for survival is fear, whether it’s necessary or not. The same applies to the unknown. Fear, caution, distrust are always the best bets for survival.

When it comes to people, one of the biggest subconscious influences on attitude is the so-called ‘ingroup/outgroup’ principle, ‘them and us’. We are all in many groups, some by virtue of characteristics, I’m English and white and male, and some by virtue of association, the golf club, gym or supporters club. Rational or not, we all favour our ingroups and shun our outgroups. The non-sense of this is clear when we think of ourselves as either a pedestrian or a motorist. As a pedestrian, all motorists are inconsiderate and dangerous. As a motorist, all pedestrians are inconsiderate and a nuisance. Yet we are all both at different times, we are them and us. Research has proved not only the existence of this human trait but also its strength. It may be a survival mechanism whereby we cling to what we know and where we feel safe and reject and fear the unknown. This may be the group equivalent of the individual survival instinct.


Discrimination is the behavioural result of our prejudices. It is the way we act towards an individual based on its membership of a particular category, its stereotype, and our attitude to the stereotype. It bears no relationship to whether that stereotype is accurate or not. It is independent of the true nature of the individual and whether the attitude or behaviour is appropriate or not. It is normally subconscious and automatic. In the examples above, we sit on the seat and we shoot the tiger. Behaviour may be right or wrong, fair or unfair, appreciated or not. Discrimination is not always wrong. In the case of the seat, the outcome is usually right. In the case of the tiger it is life-saving if it meant to eat us. When it comes to people, discrimination can be positive or negative, it can be a leg-up or a put-down.


As we grow and learn, we develop mental models for everything in our personal world. We have a model of mum, one of Michael, one of cat, of plane, doctor, hospital, male, and so on. If you know something, you have a mental model of it. The model contains all that we believe about the subject, its characteristics, its attributes, its behaviours, how we feel about it and how we should behave towards it. We store all those mental models in our brain, like files in a filing cabinet. Once we have these models, they are very resilient. We will not change them easily. We do not accept anything which contradicts them.

When we see, hear, touch, smell or taste something, the characteristic that we sense will trigger the retrieval and opening of one or more files. We know, without thinking about it, what it is, how we feel about it and how to behave towards it. Imagine the smell of cooking bacon, the sound of an ambulance, the sight of a wasp, the touch of a feather. Those are all ‘labels’ that instantly open the relevant files. All this happens incredibly quickly in our subconscious. This wonderful ability helps us to make sense of the complex world in which we live and deal with everyday life. Without it, we could not cope, we could not survive, we would not be human. The downside of this is that our models are generalised, they are mostly incomplete and often inaccurate. They are the cause of our natural bias.

Bias, the combination of stereotyping, prejudice and discrimination, the result of our learning and modelling, is a part of human nature. It is essential to our survival. It is not rational. We are genetically programmed to have bias. Our bias manifests in our beliefs, attitudes and behaviours. We are all biased and we need to be. It is, at one and the same time, both essential and a potential cause of great social unfairness.

The good news is that bias is learned and subconscious, it happens without thinking about it. That gives us clues as to how we might deal with it. Next week, I will look at race, particularly colour, and try to understand the relevance of Black Lives Matter and statues of Edward Colston.