A few nights ago I watched a movie called Crash. It takes place in LA and connects the lives of several characters who seem to have no association. Throughout the film we see certain characters change from hate filled to loving and vice versa. It shows us that we are all reacting and doing what we may with the information we have at hand. The film was released in 2004 to critical acclaim, and was nominated for six academy awards. While nominations are great, the film examines prejudice in a meaningful way. Although released over 15 years ago, it is a timely as ever in particular because of the events of the last few months.
Prejudice is a preconceived notion not based on a previous experience. It is one of the ways that we learn how to see others and comes from a time where we didn’t see new people that often. They change with our vulnerabilities and contexts; you may feel completely different about a person if you see them in a specific context. In prehistoric times prejudice paid off, because a new person was more likely to be a raider than a friend. This means that prejudice is baked into all of us, we have certain beliefs about others that we cannot shake. While that may seem a little cynical, it’s a reality. It’s also something we can be aware of and actively change.
Thinking, Fast and Slow
In 2011 Daniel Kahneman released the book “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” an examination into his work as an Economist. One of the most interesting parts of the book is when he talks about Cognitive Bias. Cognitive Bias is a systematic deviation from rational thought.
In the book Kahneman presents the argument for two thinking systems; System 1 and System 2. System 1 is what we use most of the time, it guides our instant reactions. It is fast, automatic, frequent, and emotional; we often refer to it as our “instinct” or “gut feel.” Complete the phrase “war and ____,” that little voice that immediately fills in the gap is System 1. In contrast to System 1 is System 2. System 2 is described as slow, effortful, infrequent and logical. For example, System 2 thinking is listening to someone in a loud room or multiplying 17 by 32.
The primary difference between the two systems has to do with time and effort. Although system 2 seems more thoughtful, it requires significantly more time and effort. Most of our daily decisions are controlled by System 1.
In the movie Crash we see System 1 take control many times. Dehumanizing statements that are made, misunderstandings based on prejudice and emotional reactions that end in tragedy. While System 2 is equally as flawed it does a better job in today’s diverse society. It allows the person to actually assess the situation. What I found to be the most important takeaway from the movie is that we are all doing the best we can with the information that we have. If we take a moment to slow down we can all do better.
Application of Systems
Think about Alfred, a fictional person who was alone at night waiting on a bus and sees a stranger walking towards him. The instant reaction was probably one anywhere from awareness through anxiety, all the way to fear. Most likely he hasn’t had an experience that justified that reaction, however he immediately reacts based on appearances. This doesn’t make him anything other than human.
What is interesting about the systems is that neither of them control you actions, just your thoughts. This means that with a little bit of effort you can have a thorough impact on how act in those situations. Instead of letting system 1 drive Alfred’s reactions, he could have slowed down and let system 2 process his reaction. If he asks himself the question, “does this make sense” he gives himself the chance to assess the situation. Most likely he will see that he is in no danger, the stranger is also on his way home.
Why this matters
Instead of being afraid and reacting to what you see as the big scary world, you can expose yourself to a new group of people. Maybe, you’re missing something. On a personal level, because its annoying to be on the other side. I am a relatively tall guy and happen to have darker skin. In the last week I’ve seen three people panic when I’ve sat down near them in a public space (bus, cafe and park). Please don’t get hurt because you don’t want to be prejudiced, but understand that most people don’t want to harm you. Chances are they are just looking for a place to read or asking for directions.