Do You Know Why You Discriminate Against Others?

Discrimination is an unfair act that causes suffering. Therefore, it's inevitable that we should ask the question, why do we discriminate? The answer to this question could be the key to effectively fighting inequality.
Do You Know Why You Discriminate Against Others?
Ebiezer López

Written and verified by the psychologist Ebiezer López.

Last update: 28 October, 2022

Discrimination is the attitude that generates the most inequalities in the world. Furthermore, it has a significant impact on the emotional state of those who are its victims. That’s why, today, the work of activist movements against discrimination is more important than ever.

However, have you ever wondered why you discriminate? What’s the real underlying reason? Answering these types of questions may be the key to building a more equal and just world. After all, we can only solve problems when we discover the root causes and address them. Otherwise, we could make the mistake of continuing to fight against superficial factors. That wouldn’t solve anything.

Discrimination

Discrimination refers to the act of giving differential treatment to specific groups for unjustified reasons. It often occurs on the basis of gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, or religion. It may also be based on age or socioeconomic status.

In any of the above cases, discrimination violates human and legal rights. For example, research conducted in Egypt found that 51 percent of companies prefer to hire men over women (Osman, Speer, and Weaver, 2021). In other words, just over half of commercial establishments discriminate against women.

The reasons for this discrimination can be extremely diverse. For instance, there’s the possibility that a woman will become pregnant. There are also people who think that women aren’t qualified to do certain jobs (some think that men aren’t qualified either). Whatever the case, it’s an attitude that has a significant impact in real life.

Another situation that can help us better understand the concept of discrimination is the reality faced by LGBTI people. The United Nations Organization reported that in 69 countries, homosexual relations between adults are punishable by law. Indeed, despite the fact that homosexuality ceased to be considered a disease years ago, in many countries, the situation hasn’t changed.

People discriminating against a man
Cognitive biases favor the creation of prejudices and, in many cases, the rejection of others.

Why do you discriminate against others?

Although most of us recognize that certain types of discrimination are harmful to society, at one level or another it seems inevitable. For instance, even as a child, you preferred to play with some of your peers and not others. So, why do you discriminate against other people based on certain qualities? Is it unavoidable? The answer seems to lie in the cognitive biases that your brain creates.

Cognitive biases and prejudices

When your brain is presented with a great deal of new information, it tends to keep the points that it identifies as most significant, and discard the others. A typical example is the halo effect. This leads you to describe an individual’s personality based on a single attribute. For example, if you see a person screaming in the street, and you don’t know anything else about them, you’re likely to label them as aggressive. However, it may be that they were just having a bad day and, in reality, they’re a calm and kind person.

In much the same way, the fact that your brain is prone to these biases can make you develop prejudices. These are nothing more than preconceived ideas that you create about groups of people.

To better illustrate this fact, let’s consider the xenophobia that usually exists toward the Muslim population due to terrorist attacks. The fact that there are some intolerant Muslims doesn’t mean that they’re all violent and deserve rejection. In other words, being violent or extremist isn’t linked to being a Muslim or an individual of any other religion. Assuming that they all are is an irrational prejudice that can lead you to discriminate and cause injustice.

Theory of mind

Another concept that appears to significantly influence discrimination is theory of mind. This term is used to talk about the ability you have to attribute thoughts or intentions to others. You tend to constantly assume that people think certain things or will act in a specific way. In effect, you predict their behavior.

When you attribute intentions or thoughts to others, your main reference is usually your own behavior. For instance, you might consider that someone is rude because you don’t identify in them certain polite behaviors that you perform yourself. In addition, you tend to believe that others should act as you would because that’s ‘normal’ behavior. Consequently, the majority of divergences from what you consider as ‘normal’ (what you do) could be potential anchors for discrimination.

The ‘normal’ is something we all build as we grow. Several factors influence this process. For instance, culture, family, traumatic experiences, etc. For this reason, what’s considered normal in the United States, for example, isn’t the same as in Colombia. This means that there’s no objective or natural normality and everything depends on subjectivity.

Woman feeling rejection from friends
Sticking to our vision of reality and considering it as the only truth favors discrimination.

Discrimination, is it inevitable?

Based on the above, we can conclude that we all discriminate. You make groups with the people around you based on certain characteristics. Your brain tends to bias the information it receives in order to optimize its energy. But this only gives you a partial view of the world. It’s how you create your idea of reality and of what’s normal in society.

You use these references to make decisions and change your actions, but you also project them onto others. For example, if someone doesn’t meet your expectations, derived largely from the group in which you’re included and also from what you think is the right way of acting (yours), you usually use prejudice to try and explain this dissonance. As a result, you might make decisions about how to treat others according to your own preconceived ideas. Hence, you discriminate.

However, does this mean that discrimination is an inevitable part of human nature? After all, while we all have a tendency to form prejudices, we also all have the ability to question our own ideas about the world and others.

Changing ideas

Returning to the case of the LGBTQ population, it wasn’t until 1990 that the WHO removed homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses. Before, the scientific community considered gays and lesbians to be sick. Thanks to the research and effort of many people who invested their lives in changing this thinking, today, the majority of society thinks rather differently.

Finally, by understanding why you discriminate, you can understand the importance of reviewing and questioning your own biases. As humans, we have the ability to reason about ourselves. This allows us to recognize if we act unfairly. If we want to build a more egalitarian and respectful world, we must carry out exercises in reflection. Only by doing this, will we get to the root of the problem of discrimination.

** Editorial note. Your cognitive system needs to discriminate and differentiate. You differentiate between those who are in your family from those who aren’t. You recognize those who are your colleagues and those who work for the competition. However, a problem appears when this kind of discrimination produces inequalities that aren’t justifiable from an ethical perspective. In effect, when you favor some groups over others in a partial and unfair way. This is the kind of discrimination to which much of our article refers.

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  • Esses, V. M. (2021). Prejudice and discrimination toward immigrants. Annual review of psychology, 72, 503-531.
  • Osman, A., Speer, J. D., & Weaver, A. (2021). Discrimination Against Women in Hiring.
  • Williams, D. R., Lawrence, J. A., Davis, B. A., & Vu, C. (2019). Understanding how discrimination can affect health. Health services research, 54, 1374-1388.

The contents of Exploring Your Mind are for informational and educational purposes only. They don't replace the diagnosis, advice, or treatment of a professional. In the case of any doubt, it's best to consult a trusted specialist.