In choice, we are so oft beguiled

It’s interesting just how important categories are in our lives, isn’t it? I mean, let’s face it, often they’re just adjectives –subordinate to their nouns. Add-ons. And yet, they can frame context, colour perception, and even determine value. Some, like, say, texture or odour may be interesting but trivial; some –size, or cost, for example- may be more important although optional in a description. There are, however, categories that seem to thrust themselves upon an object and are deemed essential to its description, essential to placing it in some sort of usable context. To understanding its Gestalt. These often spring to mind as questions so quickly they are almost automatic. Gender is one such category, age, perhaps another. And depending, I suppose on the situation, the society, or even the category to which the listener belongs, there may be several others that are deemed necessary to frame the issue appropriately.

The automaticity of a category is critical, however. If the category is felt to be of such consuming importance that it needs to be established before any further consideration can be given to the object, then that object’s worth –or at least its ranking- is contingent. It is no longer being evaluated neutrally, objectively. It comes replete with those characteristics attendant upon its category –intended or not. Age, for example, wears certain qualities, incites certain expectations that might prejudice acceptance of its behaviour. Gender, too, is another category that seems to colour assumptions about behaviour. So, with the assignation of category, comes opinion and its accompanying attitude.

One might well argue about the importance of these categories, and perhaps even strategize ways of neutralizing their influence on reactions, or subsequent treatment. The problem is much more difficult if knowledge of the category is so necessary it is intuitively provided as part of what is necessary to know about, for example, a person.

I suspect that in my naïveté, I had assumed that foreknowledge of many of these categories was merely curiosity-driven. Politeness oriented. Important, perhaps, so that I wouldn’t be surprised -wouldn’t embarrass the person at our initial encounter. But I am a doctor, and maybe see the world from a different perspective. A piece in the BBC, however, made me realize just how problematic this automaticity had become. How instinctive.

The article dealt mainly with its effects on racism, and the difficulties of countering it if we accept, as some evolutionary psychologists seem to believe, that it is basically intuitive. Evolved for a reason. Wired-in. ‘[…] if perceiving race is automatic then it lays a foundation for racism, and appears to put a limit on efforts to educate people to be “colourblind”, or put aside prejudices in other ways.’ But, as Tom Stafford, the author of the BBC article puts it, ‘Often, scientific racists claim to base their views on some jumbled version of evolutionary psychology (scientific racism is racism dressed up as science, not racisms based on science […]). So it was a delightful surprise when researchers from one of the world centres for evolutionary psychology intervened in the debate on social categorisation, by conducting an experiment they claimed showed that labelling people by race was far less automatic and inevitable than all previous research seemed to show.

‘The research used something called a “memory confusion protocol” […] When participants’ memories are tested, the errors they make reveal something about how they judged the pictures of individuals. […] If a participant more often confuses a black-haired man with a blond-haired man, it suggests that the category of hair colour is less important than the category of gender (and similarly, if people rarely confuse a man for a woman, that also shows that gender is the stronger category). Using this protocol, the researchers tested the strength of categorisation by race, something all previous efforts had shown was automatic. The twist they added was to throw in another powerful psychological force – group membership. People had to remember individuals who wore either yellow or grey basketball shirts. […] Without the shirts, the pattern of errors were clear: participants automatically categorised the individuals by their race (in this case: African American or Euro American). But with the coloured shirts, this automatic categorisation didn’t happen: people’s errors revealed that team membership had become the dominant category, not the race of the players. […] The explanation, according to the researchers, is that race is only important when it might indicate coalitional information – that is, whose team you are on. In situations where race isn’t correlated with coalition, it ceases to be important.’

I don’t know… To me, this type of experiment seems so desperate to appear to be wearing a scientific mantle, that it comes across as contrived –kludged, if you’ll permit an equally non-scientific term. But I take their point. If there is some way of diffusing the automaticity of our categorizations –or at least deflecting them into more malleable descriptors –teams, in this case- perhaps they could be used as exemplars –wedges to mitigate otherwise uncomfortable feelings. Placeboes –to put the concept into more familiar language for me.

Stopgaps, to be sure, and not permanent solutions. But sometimes, we have to ease into things less obtrusively. Less confrontationally. A still-evolving example -at least here in Canada- might be gender bias in hockey. Most Canadians have grown up exposed to hockey, and might be reasonably assumed to have an opinion on the conduct of games, players, and even rules. And yet, until relatively recently, the assumption was that hockey players –good ones, at least- were male. For us older folks, it was automatic. No thought required; no need to ask about gender. But no longer is that the case. For a variety of reasons, there is still no parity, and yet it is changing –slowly, perhaps, but not conflictually. And so, despite any initial challenges, is likely to succeed.

Am I really conflating success in the changing mores of hockey with gender equality? Or basketball teams and how we view their members, with racial equality? Am I assuming that diminishing discrimination in some fields leads to wider societal effects? Yes, I suppose I am. A blotter doesn’t care about the kind, or the colour, of the ink it absorbs; it’s just what it does. What it is. And, in the end, isn’t that what we all are, however vehemently we may protest? However much we may resist the similarities that bind us in relationship for fear of losing our own identities?

But if we step back a little, we may come to appreciate that the correlation need not be like that of a blotter -need not involve a team, or a marriage… I am reminded of the advice from one of my favourite writers, the poet, Kahlil Gibran: Love one another, but make not a bond of love: let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.

It’s the way I prefer to see the world, anyway…