Putting people in boxes is bad. You know it. I know it. We’ve heard it a trillion times from Mr. Rogers and Elmo: “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” It’s just that simple. Right?
There’s a video floating around the Internet that you’ve probably seen, or at least viewed some version of. First produced by a television station in Denmark, the video begins with an empty stage divided up into painted squares. Groups of people enter and move toward their respective boxes, everyone sticking with their group—those in suits go to one box, the tough-looking crowd goes to another, and so on. The tension in the room is palpable. Then, a man with a clipboard steps into the center and asks the first question: “Who in this room was a class clown?” The tension dies out immediately. Everyone’s laughing. Individuals from every group come forward. More questions follow, some more sobering. “Who has been bullied?” “Who is lonely?” The groups mingle and meld and become indiscernible from one another. There’s one last shot of everyone together, grinning, and then the video fades to black.
It’s an inspiring video. And it’s right. Regardless of our ethnicity, socioeconomic standing, sexual orientation, age, gender, whatever, we are united by being human. We are more than the boxes we are put into. I’m not saying anything you and I don’t already know.
But there’s something about that image, a place where there are no more boxes to put others into, where there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female, for all are one… that sounds like the Kingdom of Heaven to me.
But do we know it? I keep coming back to the image at the beginning of the video, of the painted squares and the empty stage. We believe that stereotyping is wrong and acceptance is right, and yet, time and time again, we end up right back there, putting people into boxes. We know we shouldn’t categorize or label others, but we do it anyway. Why? What’s really going on here?
To understand this, we have to examine our hardwiring. The truth is, our brains are categorizing machines. And that’s not a bad thing; in fact, it’s extremely necessary. From our hunter-gatherer beginnings until now, human beings have needed categories in order to survive. Eat that fruit. Stay away from that rhinoceros. Wade into the river here, but avoid those rapids down there.
In theory, social categorization is no different: it’s about keeping us alive. We know these people, so they’re safe. We don’t know those people, so they’re not. And there’s definitely a need for social categorization. A society needs to know the difference between police officers and civilians, or teachers and students, in order to function. That stuff is good and vital. What becomes an issue, though, is when our hardwiring betrays us.
With social categorization comes this notion of outgroup homogeneity. According to Charles Stangor’s “Principles of Social Psychology,” outgroup homogeneity is “the tendency to view members of outgroups as more similar to each other than we see members of ingroups.” Another way to describe this is monolithizing: turning a group of people into a monolith, or one big uniform thing. This is what social categorization can lead to. Because we receive stereotypes from our parents, friends and the media we consume, and because we are better able to remember things that confirm our biases rather than those that disprove them, and because we so often have little to no interaction with the members of that outgroup, we assume that those people are this way. We homogenize.
In a 1980 research study, Patricia Linville and Edward Jones asked participants to take a list of traits and apply them to their own in-group and to another different group. The study found that time and time again, people gave the outgroup less defining traits than their ingroup. Meaning, the participants could see the complexity of their own group but failed to define the other group by anything more than a few key characteristics. The ingroup was nuanced, and the outgroup was not. This is the uncomfortable reality of our categorizing tendencies: whether we mean to or not, we can simplify people. We can put them into boxes.
So, what to do? Can we do anything? Or are we just prisoners of our own psychology, strapped in, along for the ride? Maybe. But I don’t think so. I think there’s a lot to be hopeful about. It certainly won’t be easy, but our deeply entrenched biases and assumptions can be combated. Our hardwiring can be rewired.
First things first, though. You and I have to admit to ourselves that we do put people into boxes. I know, I know. It’s no fun. But we all have prejudices, and if we’re going to address them, we have to recognize them. Try to catch yourself when you start categorizing another person. “How typical of them—” Stop. Acknowledge the people groups you have made into monoliths. If necessary, apologize to individuals. It will suck, but that’s okay. We’re all learning.
Second, begin to rehabituate yourself. Social psychologist Patricia Devine believes that prejudice isn’t all that different from habit. In an article for The Atlantic, Devine says this: “There are a lot of people who are very sincere in their renunciation of prejudice…Yet they are vulnerable to habits of mind. Intentions aren’t good enough.” What Devine argues is that the only way to deal with our “implicit” or “unconscious” biases to actively, habitually break down our paradigms. We need to find ways to stop associating people with the stereotypes we’ve given them. This means engaging with people outside of your group. This means exploring movies, television, and books that complicate our assumptions about others. This means making a point to think about the situation surrounding a person rather than the stereotypes you have lined up for them. It will take work, but we can rearrange our paradigms.
That’s why I so appreciate the video I referenced earlier. It shows, so beautifully, what happens when we shake up our paradigm and step out of our boxes. However, we have to recognize that out boxes don’t disappear so easily. It takes time and effort. They’re deeply rooted in our psychology and culture. We’re fighting our hardwiring. But we can do it. I believe that. It will take work, sure. But there’s something about that image, a place where there are no more boxes to put others into, where there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female, for all are one… that sounds like the Kingdom of Heaven to me.