Basic truths about human nature hold up well, despite time’s winged chariot. Back in the 1960’s, Milton Rokeach, of the University of Michigan, wrote one of the seminal books about the mental processes of prejudice.1 In it, he noted that people who are chronically anxious, insecure or frightened cling desperately to their belief system, and are too busy defending themselves against real or imagined threats to absorb information about reality. The more upset we are, the less we are able to consider other ideas, and the more stubbornly we cling to the beliefs that give us comfort and make us feel secure in a changing world.
This is what we refer to as black and white thinking. Each of us has two frames of reference, what Rokeach called “belief systems” and “disbelief systems.” Our belief systems inform, for better or for worse, our everyday interactions with what we perceive as reality. They involve relatively fixed ideas. If racial prejudices are part of our belief systems, our behavior toward people of other ethnic backgrounds will reflect them. If we hold to particular religious or political convictions, they will illuminate our view of the world in those respects, to greater or lesser extent. It is vital to remember that we hold these beliefs because they are where we feel safest.
The extent to which we can deviate comfortably from our belief system is related to our disbelief system, the things that others believe – or seem to – that are at variance with our beliefs. On a good day, when our lives are running smoothly and we’re enjoying a feeling of well being, we may be able to consider other people’s ideas with a degree of equanimity. We may be able to see their point, if not agree with it completely, and consider ways in which it does not necessarily conflict with our own world view.
When we feel threatened, however, we automatically revert to our own belief systems – the emotional places where we feel most secure. The degree to which we do this is related to things like understanding of the “big picture,” level of education, amount of lifetime exposure to the beliefs of others, our long-term success in dealing with the world, our desire to be open minded, and various other factors including peer pressure (it’s hard to be a liberal in a redneck bar). And, of course, when these core beliefs are challenged — that’s when we fight back the hardest. The important thing to remember is that we all do it, and we may never realize it.
1Rokeach, Milton. The Open and Closed Mind. New York: Basic Books, 1960.