Decisions & Discrimination
Discrimination refers to noticing differences and making choices based on
evaluating differences. One of the trends in neuroscience involves
understanding of how decisions are made. You could argue that detecting and
responding to differences is the most universal strategy in animal brains.
Humans are good at detecting differences and make millisecond decisions that
have a lasting influence on their subsequent decision making procedures. The
kind and degree of difference is always in flux and depends on prior learning,
context and social status. Discrimination is a deeply imbedded property of the
human mind that is expressed in almost every human behavior we might consider.
However, discrimination as a popular topic is often a misinterpretation of the
normal activity of noticing and acting on differences.
All animals decide among alternatives many times every day. Often survival is
determined by the accuracy of decisions. We will consider the root dialectics of
decision making: familiar and strange, approach and avoidance, reward and
punishment. Researchers have looked closely, discovering that humans decide in
the same way that other animals decide and make the same kind of mistakes.
Decisions are mostly made unconsciously and quickly. While most behavior is
organized in the old brain, the neocortex stores memories, not like photographs,
video recordings or digital files, but as abstract features of experiences that
can be compared quickly with features extracted from ongoing experience. The
decision processes require rapid parallel processing available in the neocortex.
Decisions are made in milliseconds; the processes that lead to decisions are not
represented in consciousness.
In popular debates, discrimination is treated as an aberration. Terms that
end in “ism” and “ist” are often used to describe discriminating people in a
derogatory manner. Thus anyone with a different ancestry who disagrees with you
becomes a racist. This is not to argue that noticing differences is always
positive. It is to argue that humans base a lot of their decisions on noticing
differences and deciding to favor the familiar over the unfamiliar. In a
positive mode, the description “a discriminating shopper” identifies human who
notices differences in design and quality of manufacture, choosing high quality
products rather than cheap ones.
We have recognized that group membership is all important to humans. You
recognize familiar humans who speak and act like yourself as members of your
group. In a crowd you notice humans who display small differences in speech,
costume and behavior. Most often these small differences are the basis for
shunning or ignoring the “strange” humans. In the most rigid groups, everyone
wears the same costume, repeats the same polite language, with the same
intonation and behaves in a predicable, ritualistic manner.
We have recognized that racial and ethnic boundaries exist but obvious
boundaries are not required for discrimination. The ideal of an egalitarian
society is to recognize the merit of individuals; to allow social mobility based
on learning and achievement; and to protect individual expressions by social
policy and law, but human nature does not change. Group preferences and
boundaries that separate groups can always be identified.