Popular Science Monthly/Volume 36/March 1890/The Psychology of Prejudice

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By G. T. W. PATRICK, Ph. D.,

THE rapidly enlarging field of modern psychology makes it possible to discuss some questions not before attempted by students of mental science. There is, however, even yet, one apparently simple problem in mental pathology which the most hardy philosopher would hardly hope to solve. This problem is to determine, by analysis of the soul, the causes, symptoms, and cure of narrow-mindedness, or mental bias. Such a research, if aught could be made of it, would be as fascinating as it would be fruitful.

My present attempt is less ambitious. It is to trace out some primary laws of psychic activity in their bearing on that condition of mind known as prejudice. I shall not here allow myself to be entangled in a metaphysical puzzle by attempting an accurate definition of prejudice. To define it as deflection from truth would be to raise the ancient question, What is truth? It will be quite sufficient for my purpose to consider prejudice as individual deviation from the normal beliefs of mankind, taking as the standard the universal, the general, or the mean.

The chapter in modern psychology which furnishes the principles in quest is the chapter on apperception really only another word for attention. All knowledge is the result of the union of two factors, one objective and one subjective. To know anything is to refer it to something known before. In every cognition there is a union of the group of sensations composing the object with a group of ideas previously acquired and now recalled. Knowledge is classification. The class is within us; the thing to be classified is without. A piece of sugar lies before me on the table. I perceive only that it is a white object of a certain form. I apperceive, by means of the group of ideas previously associated with such white substances, that it is also sweet, hard, heavy, soluble in water in fact, that it is sugar. The inner group of ideas varies indefinitely in complexity. Closely related ideas may be altogether wanting, as when one sees, for instance, a horse for the first time, and can only ask, What is that thing? or, What is that animal? One with more experience that is, with more related ideas apperceives that it is a horse. A jockey, however, apperceives all his "points"; a zoologist still more. We say that the jockey or zoologist really sees more in the horse than the ignorant man, yet the image made upon the retina of the eye is the same in each observer. Similarly, in reading, we cast the eye rapidly down the page and, although we do not see one half the words, or a fraction of the letters, yet we catch the sense. If it happens to be a letter from a well-known friend, we read also, as we say, between the lines. Really we read out of our own heads.

The subjective or a priori factor is simplest, therefore, when, as in the cases given, it is merely the class notion, horse or sugar; it is most complex when it represents, for instance, a whole system of astronomy, as when, in a falling body, there is apperceived a law of gravitation. But, simple or complex, it follows, first, that unless there be an inner group of ideas to which the object may in some way be referred, knowledge of it is impossible; and, secondly, that the character of the resulting knowledge depends upon the character of the inner group of ideas. You and I, therefore, see everything to some extent differently. You see things from the standpoint of your previously acquired groups of ideas; I from mine. Strictly, no two persons can see the same thing in the same way, for it can never happen that two persons have precisely the same groups of ideas relating to any subject. These depend on our past experience, on our education, on the beliefs of our times, on our various sects or parties, on our pet theories, our interests, and our desires. Here is a simple illustration. Suppose an artist and an engineer, standing side by side overlooking a tract of country. What they perceive is the same; what they apperceive is wholly different. To the engineer the country presents itself as a possible line for a railroad, with here advantageous grades and there economic bridges. Before the artist is spread out a landscape, with light and shade and harmony of colors. Suppose, again, a plot of level ground in the suburbs of a city. A college student riding by apperceives it as a possible ball-ground; a young girl, as a tennis-court; a speculator, as an addition for town lots; an undertaker, perhaps, as a possible site for a cemetery.

In the primary laws of knowing, above stated, we discover the ground principles of the psychology of prejudice. The results may be summed up in the form of two laws:

1. We see only so much of the world as we have apperceptive organs for seeing.
2. We see things not as they are but as we are—that is, we see the world not as it is, but as molded by the individual peculiarities of our minds.

Applications of the first law I shall state briefly; of the second, more in detail. The eye is limited by its structure to the reception of ethereal vibrations between the colors red and violet. The ear converts into sound only air-vibrations of a limited rapidity. Just so the mind, in its reception of knowledge, is limited by the quality and amount of its previous acquisitions. "No man," Emerson tells us, "can learn what he has not preparation for learning, however near to his eyes is the object. A chemist may tell his most precious secrets to a carpenter, and he shall be never the wiser—the secrets he would not utter to a chemist for an estate. God screens us evermore from premature ideas. Our eyes are holden that we can not see things that stare us in the face, until the hour arrives when the mind is ripened; then we behold them, and the time when we saw them not is like a dream." Instinctively, therefore, we seek the mental food that our minds are prepared to digest that, namely, which is most clearly related to what we know already. In conversation, notice how people brighten up when you tell them something that they know already, especially if it is something they have long believed or themselves discovered. In society we know how to make ourselves agreeable by speaking to each person on the subject of his peculiar interests. If we are wise, we shall engage each person in subjects of conversation about which he is best informed. By so doing we can not only make ourselves agreeable, but lay by a stock of useful information at the same time. Such a course is by no means easy. We fall naturally into the vice of parading our own knowledge, and we like to hear others talk, not of their interests, but of ours. Sometimes persons in conversation act simply as foils each for the other. I listen to your stories only that you in turn may listen to mine; and in the next company I tell not the ones I heard, but the ones I told before. Thackeray, in "Henry Esmond," hits upon this human weakness. "They emptied scores of bottles at the 'King's Arms,' each prating of his love, and allowing the others to talk on condition that he might have his own turn as a listener."

We like also to read that which favors our side of a question. The Republican subscribes for a Republican newspaper, and the Democrat reads the organ of his party. In the last political campaign it was no doubt true that advocates of free trade or of tariff reform, and advocates of protection, read for the most part literature favorable to their respective views. The churches plead for greater consensus of opinion, yet the Methodist subscribes for a Methodist paper, the Baptist for a Baptist paper, the Roman Catholic for a Catholic paper. In general we read the organ of our own sect or party. There are, of course, some valid economic reasons for so doing. I shall speak of these reasons below. But, if truth alone were sought, the plan we pursue would be the worst plan possible. Sometimes even we indignantly refuse mental food that might serve as a corrective of our possible one-sidedness, instinctively avoiding that which we feel can not be assimilated without a dangerous readjustment of our mental possessions. The skeptic in religion opens a book on Christian evidences, only to close it in haste when he perceives its trend; while the pious believer, who picks up the work of Strauss or Renan, drops it like a burning coal. We avoid books, men, sermons, society, that are not, as we say, congenial. Hence the trouble we have in getting our books read by the very people for whom they were written, or in getting our articles printed in the journals that circulate among the readers we desire to reach. The preacher prepares a vigorous sermon for "sinners," but he preaches it to his own devout people; the "sinners" are not there.

Our psychological law of prejudice thus developed teaches us that, since we seek not for what may correct our possible errors, but for what will confirm our already acquired opinions, our mental life always tends toward intensification or involution. Evidently this tendency of the mind toward involution will grow with age, and our every-day experience confirms this deduction. Teaching new tricks to old dogs is easier than giving us new apperceptive organs when middle life is past. The old man changes his politics rarely, his religion never. He lives from within. The mind becomes more and more a microcosm. The cerebral tracts show well-beaten paths of association. The brain becomes hardened and fixed."An old man," says Dr. Holmes, "who shrinks into himself, falls into ways which become as positive and as much beyond the reach of outside influences as if they were governed by clock-work." The brain, he continues, has its "systole and diastole as regular as that of the heart itself."

"Minds roll in paths like planets: they revolve
This in a larger, that a narrower ring,
But round they come at last to that same phase,
That self-same light and shade they showed before.
I learned his annual and his monthly tale,
His weekly axiom and his daily phrase.
I felt them coming in the laden air,
And watched them laboring up to vocal breath,
Even as the first-born at his father's board
Knows ere he speaks the too familiar jest
Is on its way, by some mysterious sign
Forewarned, the click before the striking bell."

The older we get, the larger becomes the subjective factor of knowledge and the smaller the objective. We are, as said the obscure sage of Ephesus, like those asleep, withdrawn each into a private world of his own. We can now understand that state of mind described by the word "confirmed." We hear of a confirmed pessimist, a confirmed protectionist or free-trader. Sometimes we apply the word without shame to ourselves, saying that experience has confirmed us in this or that opinion, not knowing that to a considerable extent we have selected our own experience.

Our second law affirms that we see the world not as it is but as modified by the individual peculiarities of our minds. The illusions that result are Bacon's well-known "idols of the den," doubtless the most fruitful of the four sources of error pointed out by that clear-headed philosopher. For our starting-point we may turn again to physics and physiology. Vibrations of the luminiferous ether of varying rapidity are perceived by the eye as a harmony of colors. Vibrations of the air of varying rapidity are perceived by the ear as a harmony of tones. Unless, now, we are prepared to say that the colors red or green, or that the tones a or a', are like or in any way similar to the motion of the ether or air; unless, further, we are prepared to say that, corresponding to the subjective harmony of colors and tones which we feel, there is an objective harmony of motions in the ponderable stuff, then we must admit that we have here cases of the great primary illusion of a phenomenal world of ideas like a noumenal world of things-in-themselves. With this ancient problem of perception we are not now concerned, but it serves as an illustration of our mental law of apperception. As the eye and the ear, each according to its structure, make over the manifold motions of the external world into sensations of light and sound, so the mind makes over the materials of knowledge into this or that product according to its peculiar constitution. Observe, however, this difference between the two cases. While the eye and the ear vary little in structure in different individuals, the variations in mental structure are endless, being determined by our environment, education, and inherited peculiarities. Color-blindness is comparatively rare and limited to a few colors; psychical blindness, in a greater or less degree, is a defect no man is free from.

The simpler illustrations of this law need not detain us. We put any new phenomenon into that class of our previous notions which it most closely resembles. A child who sees a cow for the first time calls it a horse, if familiar with horses. The same plant may be apperceived by a girl as a flower, by a farmer as a weed, by an old woman as an herb. The story of the precocious boy is in point. He sat under a tree as three strangers passed by. The first said, "What a fine stick of timber!" "Good-morning, carpenter," said the boy. The second, "What excellent bark!" "Good-morning, tanner." The third, "What a beautiful treetop!" "Good-morning, artist." He had correctly interpreted their vocations from their manner of apperceiving the tree. Our habits of thought, once started, grow on any food. We go by chance to hear a lecturer of an opposite party or sect, and come away confirmed in our own views. This law of mental inertia tends constantly to produce one-sidedness. Nature strives ever to rectify this tendency by presenting to us an unsorted variety of details, and succeeds in keeping most of us within the bounds of sanity, though not of perfect balance. "The complexity of our environment," says Ribot, "is our safeguard against automatism." But our ideas are ingrowing, and need to be constantly watched and corrected. Insanity is a matter of degree. When the "fixed ideas" which few of us are without pass a certain point and get too obtrusive, we become monomaniacs. Men of one idea, men of mental bias, narrow-minded men, present milder cases of the same disease.

Fruitful illustrations of this law may be seen in the systems of thought that have prevailed since the days of Pythagoras. Systems of words would be a better name for many of them. As in our seeing, so in our thinking, we are limited by the apparatus that happens to be at our command. For most of us, at least, the available apparatus for constructing a philosophical system is a philosophical vocabulary. From this fact and the further one that these vocabularies are largely inherited from the schools, it results that the apperceptive organs of metaphysicians are wofully inadequate to the task they undertake, namely, the cognition of ultimate realities. It is no wonder, therefore, that these realities have been persistently apperceived under so many different forms in the various metaphysical systems, supported by so many "hide-bound adult philosophers."' Many a well-meaning philosopher has got caught in the swing of a certain terminology, till his thoughts have become slaves to the movements of his tongue. We are reminded of Aristotle's, categories, Kant's map of the mind, Comte's three stages, Hegel's thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, the absolute and the finite, subject and object, mind and matter, body and spirit, noumenon and phenomenon, real and ideal, rational and empirical. This is the "tyranny of formulas " from whose iron rule science is now escaping, but which is still the terror of philosophy and religion.

The danger of words and formulas may be well illustrated further by the mischief made in philosophy by the presence of negative terms. These are the words which in the finished systems of the philosophers mark, we may say, the absence of thought. We recall the "Infinite" of Zeno and Kant, the "Absolute" of Fichte and Hegel, the "Supra-essential " of Pseudo-Dionysius, the "Unconditioned" of Hamilton, the "Unknowable" of Spencer, the "Not-ourselves" of Matthew Arnold, the "Unconscious" of von Hartmann, the "Immortality " of Christian believers, the μὴ ὄν of the Greeks, and the "Non-being" of the Hegelians. These represent the unfathomable places in thought, which we bridge with a negative term and pass on blithely as before, but presently find ourselves using them as conceptions regularlyformed. In Goethe's well-turned phrase:

"Denn eben wo Begriffe fehlen,
Da stellt ein Wort zur rechten Zeit sich ein."

But if prejudice prevails in philosophy, what shall we say of religion? The race as a whole is divided into a large number of religious systems, and each system into sects. Every individual apperceives the "eternal truths" from the standpoint of the sect in which he was educated. Rarely does he change from one faith to another, and when he does so it is not often for his peace of mind. Such an "Exodus from Houndsditch," in Carlyle's homely phrase, is accomplished only "in a state of brutal nakedness, scandalous mutilation." Why? Because religious ideas are deep-seated and fundamental. To receive into the mind a group of new and foreign notions of such a kind requires a breaking up and readjusting of the old order such as few can undertake with safety. The very psychological laws that we are studying, however, may teach us that these world-wide differences in opinions are not destructive of the eternal verities of religion, but only that these verities are distorted when narrowed down to fit our particular systems and our individual capacities.

There is a curious science called the science of interpretation, whose business it is to translate the facts and thoughts of the world into phrases comprehensible to a mind limited to a certain system of ideas. Have we ever stopped to think what a confession of shame such a science carries on its face? To interpret is, in some sense, to change, to distort. An instructive illustration of this branch of learning may be seen in hermeneutics, or the science of the interpretation of the Scriptures. Never in any literature were thoughts expressed in so simple, straightforward, and honest language as in the books of the Bible, or in language less in need of interpretation. What this science really has in hand is the pitiful task of fitting a vast variety of thoughts into the limited number of forms of some system of theology. So, everywhere, it is a mistake to interpret things. It is better to let Nature carry on her work of rectification, by allowing the bare facts of the world to project themselves freely against our minds and be perceived as they are, or make for themselves apperceptive organs.

Interpretation leads to over-interpretation. This evil becomes prominent in connection with those studies which are not yet exact sciences, such as sociology, ethics, metaphysics, and theology. Here, as we know, we very often have to make an allowance for the "personal equation" of the author—unless, unfortunately, belonging to the same party, sect, or school, we have blindly accepted him as a guide. We understand that he writes from a certain standpoint, and that unconsciously and inevitably he will see things, not just as they are, but as tinged by his own subjective light. Where, for instance, shall we find a perfectly just history of philosophy? Not in Schwegler, who glances over the past through a pair of thick Hegelian spectacles; nor in Lewes, who apperceives the opinions of thinkers with a positivistic bias. Theology is quite a different science as presented by a St. Augustine and a Pelagius, by a Protestant and a Romanist. The Socrates of Grote is not the same man as the Socrates of Cousin. Jesus, even, is seen in an entirely different light by Fleetwood and by Renan. The Greek thinkers, especially Aristotle and Plato, have suffered much at the hands of modern writers, being used as props to bolster up every man's system of science or philosophy.

Over-interpretation is really only the logical outcome of another wide-spread evil, that of over-systemization. This is a prevalent modern vice. It is the abuse of classification, or the scientific method. It is the tendency to group under any outlined system or theory more facts than properly belong to it. We fall in love with our favorite theory, and it seems to us to possess exaggerated virtues, and to be able to explain all phenomena. Darwinism in biological science, utilitarianism in ethics, and Hegelianism in philosophy, are examples. The latter is a very beautiful illustration of over-systemization. Hegel, with his thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, fondly thought he had spread a net that should capture the universe. But the strain appears to have been too great, and already we see the ruins of a great collapsed philosophy. Over-systemization is apparent also in the present rage for publication, especially in Germany. Every university man must publish a book, and every book must present either some theory or the results of some original research. Under these circumstances, it is not surprising that the demand for new material exceeds the supply. The result is, that the author falls back upon his own mental resources. He makes a new and original hypothesis and apperceives his facts to fit his theory. Adopting, as it would seem, the maxim that it is better to be original than reasonable, it is considered no disadvantage if the new hypothesis is somewhat fanciful and startling, as for instance that Schiller, not Goethe, was the author of "Faust," or that Shakespeare's plays were written by Bacon.

I have explained the narrowing effect of "schools" and systems, and the mental bias which results from over-systemization; but the use as well as the abuse of systems must not pass unnoticed. There is good in them as well as evil. Trendelenburg says that a system is as necessary for a thinker as a house. We must get our knowledge into some sort of unity, otherwise it can neither be retained nor used. The Ptolemaic system of astronomy was far better than none; it served as a framework for a great body of facts, distorted though they were by the false theory. We are lovers of systems. Most of us prefer unity to verity. We want order and discipline among our ideas. Of absolute truth we can not speak; of order and consistency we may. Any new system may find numerous adherents, if only it be presented in the threefold form of unity, consistency, and repetition. It is easy to understand this love of systems. They save us from the inevitable mental bankruptcy which would result from the influx of a mass of uncoördinated impressions. Grant us a system, all complete in its several compartments, where we can pigeon-hole each newly acquired fact, and peace and harmony reign within. No matter if the system be so narrow that we can dispose therein only a limited number of impressions; if only we have confidence in it, all heterogeneous elements we may cast out as "error." We love harmony and hate antagonisms. It is mental economy, therefore, for us to read the organs of our sects and parties, to converse with those with whom we sympathize, to listen to that which we believe already. Great historical disturbances bring out systems. It is in this way that we get ourselves ready for troublous times. A system is a kind of mental fortress, a vantage-ground from which to scrutinize each new idea, and apperceive it as a friend to be received or an enemy to be, on a priori grounds, repelled. System-forming is thus the process of mental involution, which is the law of individual minds, as evolution is of the mind of the race.

Mental involution shows another phase in habit. Habits are well-knit associations. They make us machines, committed forever to a determined manner of acting and thinking. A habit is itself a mental bias. Stereotyped and inherited, it becomes instinct, where we see the full fruition of the involution movement and the dead level of automatism. From this point of view, instinct has been well called "lapsed intelligence," if by intelligence we mean power to adapt ourselves to new surroundings and to avail ourselves of new impressions. Habit is opposed to progress. In history, our reformers—Jesus, Savonarola, Luther—have been habit-breakers. Genius, too, is only the name of that disposition which rebels against the law of mental involution, breaks away from systems, and goes out in search of the objective truths of nature. Thus, side by side with the involution movement, we find the evolution movement. In the animal kingdom, it is represented by the persistent but mysterious tendency toward variation; in human history, by the comet-like appearance of the reformer; in art, by the lawless product of genius. All these are factors in the upward world-movement which saves us from the stagnation of the relentless law of habit.

But habits, like systems, have their good side. They enable us to do a vast number of actions with the minimum of attention and the least expenditure of nervous energy. Education consists largely, as has been said, in making habitual as many good actions as possible. The training of domestic animals is purely the formation of good habits; the training of children is largely so. Every time we form a good association and send it down into the region of the unconscious, we practice mental economy. Habits, therefore, are at the same time our salvation and our damnation. This is the great dilemma in education. Extremists like Rousseau, impressed with the danger of habits, condemned them all outright. Perhaps we may say that it is the abuse of habits, the falling into fatal ruts, that constitutes our prevailing sin.

The laws of prejudice that we have examined naturally suggest one or two questions. Is there any escape from this narrowing of mind that accompanies the hardening of the brain? If not, are there any pedagogical principles the application of which in educational systems may retard the involution and hasten the evolution movement? It is not my purpose to attempt to answer these questions here; but, if the first one must be answered in the negative, the latter may certainly be answered in the affirmative. Our psychological principles have already shown us the direction in which the solution of this problem must be sought. There must be persistent emphasis of the objective factor of knowledge. The senses, the primal source of all our. knowledge, must be kept open and alert. This is vastly more difficult than at first appears. The man prejudiced by his interests has his eyes and ears open, and yet, being open, they are shut. More than twenty centuries ago an old Greek philosopher said, "Eyes and ears are bad witnesses to men having rude souls." To escape mental bias, we must not only have our senses open to the outer world, but we must apperceive this world as it is, not as warped by our receptive faculties. But, however excellent this advice, it is as impossible for us with minds already formed to follow it as to see the ultra red or violet colors with our eyes constituted as they are. The remedy is to be found in education, especially of the young. Fortunately, we live in an epoch of objective education. The training of the senses, thanks to the labors of Rousseau, Pestalozzi, Froebel, and their disciples, and thanks to the retroactive influence of the physical sciences, is now the great central thought in pedagogical systems. Unfortunately, it is still too largely theory and too little practice. In our primary as well as in our secondary schools we slip back too easily into the lazy scholastic, deductive methods. The tendency, however, is the other way.

Our free press, also, and our free speech are great educators. In these days we are compelled to see and hear and think. The narrow-minded man is unhappy and distracted. He is no longer protected in his little system by college or cloister walls. A myriad unwelcome facts peer in at him from every side from the circulating library, from the interesting novel, from the omnipresent and iconoclastic newspaper. The man of mental bias is veritably a victim of persecution. Optimists tell us that the world is growing honest. I am optimist enough to believe that it is growing broad-minded. Perforce it must. The air is full of everybody's ideas. They circulate everywhere and act as a series of incessant shocks wherever they find a mind too narrowly planned to admit them. Hence men are beginning to avoid systems as the cause of more friction than they save. They are willing to sacrifice a narrow love of unity and consistency for a broader harmony with the spirit of the age.

What is likely to be the result of this general breaking up of old unities, systems, habits? An increase of insanity? By no means. Insanity proceeds from the opposite movement, from the involution of the mind upon itself, till fixed ideas can no longer be rectified by objective facts. The results will be good and bad: good, in encouraging inquiry and in substituting the love of truth for the love of consistency; bad, in discouraging a certain moral earnestness and enthusiasm which are the outgrowth of strong conviction, for the narrower is one's system of thought, the stronger often are one's convictions of its truth and importance. The extreme form of this union of prejudice and intensity we call fanaticism. If not in fanaticism, at least in enthusiasm, there is an element of good which we must not overlook. Men possessed with one idea are men of action. Enthusiasts carry forward great movements. The development of the intellect is the weakening of the will. Children and animals act out every thought. Education is a training in the inhibition of movements by the higher intellectual processes. The man of many-sided mind finds every volition "checked" by some antagonistic idea. The correction of mental bias, therefore, will result in a certain loss of spontaneity. But progress will not suffer. If we move more slowly, it will be more surely. What we lack in enthusiasm we shall make up in balance.


"The great fault of non-manual training schools," says Prof. C. M. Woodward, "is their haziness. The pupils look at multitudes of things but do not perceive them. Having eyes, they see not; and having ears, they hear not. There is too much that is dim and muddy and feeble. Substances elude the grasp; shadows, uncertain and fleeting, are too often the only results. The method which reason and experience both approve is reversed, and pupils are put to committing to memory matters which they are not prepared to understand."