By Carlos -

Stereotypes (An aside)

Stereotypes are much  like low hanging fruit; sweet parcels of  information we’d rather not sacrifice expensive cognitive resources to unpack and discover organically, but which are made conveniently available to us –I suggest– as a coping strategy in dealing with the increasingly complex information laden world before us. What is a stereotype really, if not the logical distillate resulting from an encounter with a complex set of real world conditions that we’re tasked to make sense of?

The process of formulating a stereotype, and the eventual appeal to its wisdom is the result of  what I consider to be a rather elaborate set of neurological, and therefore, also network and behavioral level processes. But lets suffice it for the purpose of discussion to regard it as the acquisition of information, an assessment of probabilities, and the formulation of a decision committed to memory, in order to repeat when presented with similar future conditions. It’s a fundamentally evolutionary process carried out on a timescale we can actually, sorta grasp. By process, I refer to learning; it’s what the brain as an organ is optimized to do- record, adapt, and innovate solutions. If not for the mechanisms I glossed over having been involved in stereotyping, animals would face each new real world condition without a set of pre-existing set of tools or experiences to draw upon, and effectively surmount that challenge. Survival could get real rough and costly in such a state of affairs.

So how then is it that something fundamental to the animal life process, also open to such criticism, to be likened to the grabbing of low hanging fruit?

Being thermodynamically driven organisms, it has to be written into the most basic and unconscious motivations of all animals, to conserve energy in functions vital to life including, but not limited to, reproductive fitness. Continuation of life itself demands this. And our brains, the organ charged with executive responsibility for our capacity to achieve ends, must then also be wired at its core to adopt such energy conservation principles, or else fail the organism in self-preservation.

I’ve referred to findings in studies which have examined on some level, the metabolism of the brain and the effect that increased demand for cognitive resources has on animal behavior. The findings of such studies repeatedly confirm the assertion that as the demand for information increases as tasks require, the ability to meet demand reaches a critical threshold where brain networks crucial to critical planning and intelligent decision making exhaust and so, other modes of thinking , such as those influenced by emotion are allowed to dominate the neural networks of decision making. In other words, brain regions critical to planning and decision making get tired and give up- delegating the task to the emotionally reactive networks. The consequence is making decisions which don’t maximize success.

I consider the appeal to stereotypes as a departure from engaging the critical thinking regions naturally optimized to solve problems, but instead represent the reliance on lesser optimized networks to inform our decisions to act one way or another. The brain is an optimized pattern recognizer , functioning for the benefit of an organism; yet this function evolved in the context of human history where we lived in relatively isolated populations. One where many, if not all of those we interacted with daily looked very much like ourselves. Only very recently have we had the challenge of getting along in close proximity with people who look and act in a manner perceived relatively different to our own. Today, these archaic stereotyping mechanisms have become rather annoying and noxious to social cohesion. In urban centers, it may look (depending on your eyesight)  as though people manage to get along relatively well next to “others”, but we only have to look a few millimeters below the surface to reveal the tensions that exist.

The political atmosphere in the United States seems to be showcasing more of that tension day to day, and I read it as a signal of our increasing reliance as a society, on the non-critical, emotionally driven networks of our brains. Whether or not it’s a deliberate agenda of the politics in our nation, as a consequence, we’re forced to accept the low hanging stereotypical fruit placed before us to help explain the ever- so- complicated social interactions we’re involved in. Appealing to stereotypes helps us to categorize, and therefore, feel we’ve mastered our circumstances. I don’t know what could be further from the truth- as the struggle is ever more apparent as we fail to make progress on any structural and social reform in the country.

The Information age and the effect of bringing nearly limitless information into our hands may contribute to some of the critical thinking brain network overload, which causes us to grab the sweet parcels of correlative data which we falsely ascribe to causal relationships.

You’re being lazy, yes, lazy when you fail to seek further into the causes of circumstances we find ourselves in. They are harder to find, yes indeed. But don’t let that stop you from thinking about any and EVERY thing with a critical eye.

The institution of science is no safe guard of critical ideas either, for I believe much of what is published doesn’t go far enough to explain what the authors offer as an explanation. More and more studies pinpoint mere correlations as if it were enough to demonstrate that people who , for instance, report drinking tea twice daily have lower incidences of heart disease, or cancer, or whatever health condition allows the researcher to secure grant funding. I fault all of us for perpetuating lazy thinking, and for those of us that recognize it and say or do nothing to challenge the authority and structures that support it.

Just an aside…

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