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Understanding Bias, Prejudice, and Violence

Curiosity about novelty versus distress, anger, and fear of differences

If we want to understand bias and prejudice, it might help to understand infant development—feelings and how they work—and evolution.

Summary: Human beings are attracted to differences and novelty—this is the innate feeling of interest or curiosity.

However, if the differences and novelty are too great or come in too fast for the brain to process them, then distress and fear result.

Therefore, if the differences in color, or facial features, or gender identity, or sexual orientation, or hair, and so on, of another human are too great—or one has been taught to fear these differences—distress, anger, fear, and disgust can be triggered, and bias and prejudice may result.

Knowledge—especially of evolution—is the key to shifting these negative feelings to positive ones of interest and enjoyment.

So What Are Bias and Prejudice?

Bias can be defined as an inclination of temperament or outlook, especially a personal and sometimes unreasoned judgment—i.e., prejudice in favor of or against one thing, person, or group compared with another, usually in a way considered to be unfair—for example, an overgeneralization.

Prejudice (prae=previous; judicum=judgment) can be defined as a preconceived judgment or opinion; an adverse opinion or leaning without just grounds or before sufficient knowledge; or an irrational attitude of hostility directed against an individual, group, a race, or their supposed characteristics.

How Does This Happen?

The answer lies in our innate feelings, infant development, and how feelings work. Humans are born with approximately nine built-in “feelings,” or various responses to stimuli. These combine with each other and with experience to form our more complex emotional life and character structure. One can easily see these responses in the facial expressions of infants (Basch, 1976, 1988; Stern, 1985; Tomkins, 1991; Holinger, 2003; Gedo, 2005).

Surprise, fear, and interest (curiosity) depend on the speed of the incoming stimuli:

  • If very fast, surprise (startle) is triggered.
  • If less fast—but still too fast for the brain to process—fear is elicited.
  • If still slower, so the brain can process them and use past experience, interest is triggered.

Distress and anger are stimulated by the amount or quantity of the stimuli:

  • If the stimulus is too much (like a bright light for an infant), distress is activated.
  • If the stimulus persists and increases, anger occurs.

Enjoyment is elicited by a decrease in stimulation. Shame occurs with an interruption of interest and/or enjoyment. Disgust and dissmell are reactions to noxious tastes and smells, respectively.

Obviously, not everyone has the same internal threshold level with respect to changes in stimuli. Some infants and adults are more easily startled or distressed than others: This involves the concept of temperament. With increased psychological-mindedness, self-awareness, capacities for self-reflection, and life experiences, these responses to stimuli can alter over time.

Interest and enjoyment are called positive feelings or affects. Surprise resets the system. Distress, anger, fear, shame, disgust, and dissmell are negative affects.

How Does the Brain Contribute?

The brain is an information processing system. Infant research shows us that humans are programmed to: generalize and predict based on experience (by the way, this is what “transference” is all about in psychotherapy and psychoanalysis); look for cause and effect patterns; internalize the worldview of those around them; be attracted to novelty; and feel fear and distress if stimuli occur too fast or are too much, respectively.

In other words, our own experiences and the worldviews and teachings of those in our environment can contribute to bias/prejudice or, on the other hand, to toleration and interest in differences.

The Solution?

The solution lies in information and knowledge. The issue is to shift from negative to positive feelings. Specifically, the issue is to enhance the shift from distress, anger, fear, and disgust to interest and enjoyment. Fortunately, as noted above, humans have an innate response to novelty called interest or curiosity.

Remember Dr. Seuss’ book, Green Eggs and Ham? The underlying theme is a shift from distress, anger, fear, and disgust (“I do not like green eggs and ham”) to interest and enjoyment (“I do so like green eggs and ham”). Sam-I-am finally convinces the other character to try green eggs and ham—to gain some knowledge! We will revisit Dr. Seuss in a moment.

Knowledge, Reality, and Epistemology

Of course, all this begs the question: How do we know what we think we know, and what are knowledge and reality anyway? After all, cognition is a double-edged sword. Tomkins defined the cognitive system as consisting of perception, sensory, and motoric components (Demos, 1995). Cognitive capacities and reason can help humans assess the environment, enhance problem-solving, and allow for self-reflection.

However, our cognitive capacities can easily be fooled—with misperceptions, false memories, and so on (Mercier and Sperber, 2017). In addition, as Freud and others demonstrated long ago, we are not the masters of our own minds. Concepts such as the unconscious, slips of the tongue and pen, denial, and negative hallucinations (not seeing something which is there) all highlight how difficult this area is. Even consensual validation has its problems: Today’s certainties can be tomorrow’s superstitions.

What Knowledge?—Evolution!

With respect to understanding bias and prejudice, our most important information and knowledge come from evolution. Our understanding of evolution comes from archaeology, paleontology, fossil record, biochemistry, and DNA studies.

Now, let’s look briefly at some of the technical issues behind this. Evolution involves the capacity to adapt to local circumstances. Modern humans—Homo sapiens—evolved in Africa between about 100,000-200,000 years ago. They then migrated out of Africa, developing different characteristics (skin color, facial features, etc.) determined by survival adaptability in various geographical areas. All humans share basic abilities and characteristics, most notably that Homo sapiens can master complicated tasks.

What about the differences among humans which can sometimes elicit distress and anger and rage and fear? The most common of these are skin color and facial features. This makes sense, given that the face is the primary source of non-verbal communication, and given that human infants are innately programmed to focus on the face for information (Stern, 1985; Basch, 1988; Holinger, 2003).

And here is where knowledge can transform negative feelings into positive ones of interest. These skin and facial features differ from group to group because they have evolved to adapt to the local environment.

Skin color—black and light—appears to have evolved depending on variables such as the ultraviolet rays of the sun and melanin. Yellowish skin color is likely an adaptation to cold temperatures in Northern Asia (leading to a thick layer of subcutaneous fat visible through translucent outer layers of skin). The differences in eye shape leading to characteristic narrow almond-shaped eyes among some Asian cultures are created by an epicanthal fold in the inner corner of the eye—probably evolved as protection against cold and windy conditions.

Hair and blood types are also different, due to adaptations to local environments. A few helpful sources about these processes can be found in Neil Shubin’s wonderful book Your Inner Fish: A Journey Into The 3.5-Billion-Year History of The Human Body (2008), Stephen Brusatte’s article “Taking Wing: A Remarkable Fossil Record of the Dinosaurs that Led to Birds Reveals How Evolution Produces Entirely New Kinds of Organisms" (Scientific American, 2017), and various sites (e.g. "Human Differentiation,", National Geographic's Genographic Project, and Wikipedia's "Early Human Migrations").

So to summarize: Infant development research suggests that human beings are born with about 7-10 innate feelings (“primary affects”). These feelings are responses to the amount or the speed of the stimulation. Thus, infants, and later children and adults, depending on life experiences and teaching, will respond with positive reactions (the feeling of interest) to differences, if the stimuli are not “too much” or “too fast.” They will respond with negative reactions (the feelings of distress, anger, fear, disgust) if the differences are too much or occur too fast, or if they have been taught to fear or be disgusted by such differences (i.e., experience).

Humans innately generalize—this can be useful in predicting patterns, but it can also be misleading. Our experiences and the teachings and worldview of others (especially early in life) can profoundly influence our responses to differences. Our capacities and difficulties to learn and change are involved here as well (Galatzer-Levy, 2004; see also October 2015 Newsletter).

The major question is: How do we enhance the shift from initial reactions of distress, anger, fear, and disgust to interest (curiosity) and enjoyment? How do we shift from negative to positive feelings (Novick and Novick, 2016)? Let’s go back to Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Suess.

The Transformation of Affects (Feelings)—And How Does This Relate to Bias, Prejudice, and Violence?

“That Sam-I-am! [Mr. Rogers reading Green Eggs and Ham]
I do not like
That Sam-I-am! ...
I do not like
Green eggs and ham…

Say! ...
I do so like
Green eggs and ham!
Thank you!
Thank you,

Green Eggs and Ham, by Dr. Seuss (Theodor Seuss Geisel, 1960)

One of the most troublesome social issues Homo sapiens faces is that of bias, prejudice, and the violence which can result. Early development and affect theory may provide a lens through which to gain some understanding of these issues.

Affects can change. Recall how feelings work. Surprise, fear, and interest are triggered by the speed of the stimuli. Distress and anger depend on the quantity of stimuli. Enjoyment relates to a decrease in stimulation. And, especially important, any excessive negative affect can result in anger.

An Example

Let’s start with a vignette and revisit the Dr. Seuss book Green Eggs and Ham. One character is convinced he doesn’t like green eggs and ham. The other character—“Sam-I-Am”—strives to get him to try green eggs and ham. Finally, the first character does try them—and likes them!

As psychoanalyst Michael Franz Basch notes, the book conveys the affect transformation from disgust to interest (personal communication). I would add the transformation is also from fear to interest—and probably distress and anger to interest as well, given that any excessive stimulation leads to distress.


Consider also our discussion of play (April 2017 Newsletter). We suggested play could be conceptualized as involving activities and thoughts related to stimuli that elicit the affects of interest-excitement, enjoyment-joy, and surprise-startle. Tomkins notes that “Many interactions are converted into games and playful rituals which otherwise might be neutral, dull, or unpleasant” (Demos, 1995, p. 170). Here, he is clearly articulating a process of shifting from negative affects to positive.

Bias, Prejudice, and Violence

So, how does this fit into bias and prejudice and violence? Let’s return to infants. Infants exhibit a desire for novelty (interest) as well as for pattern-matching (enjoyment). Human beings tend to be able to be more empathic with people who are more like them than different (Basch, 1983). This probably has to do with the differences between people—language, appearance, color, etc.—tending to trigger fear and distress before interest.

In studies of infants, the child shows enjoyment and interest in seeing the mother’s face versus a stranger’s face. The stranger’s face initially will usually elicit distress and fear. When the mother’s face is linked to a non-mother’s voice, distress and fear tend to be elicited. Distress and fear are also seen when the mother’s voice is linked with a non-mother’s face (Stern, 1985). And clowns’ faces—with the distortion of features—usually elicit distress and fear in children until their brains are helped to process these differences.

So, the issue becomes one of transforming fear and distress and disgust into interest and enjoyment. One sees parents doing this all the time. Say a parent and child come across a harmless garter snake, and the child is initially distressed. A naturalist-minded parent might pick up the garter snake, reassure the child, and point out some intriguing features. The child’s initial surprise and fear may morph into interest.

Of course, affects can be transformed in the other direction. A child may pick up a big, muddy earthworm and show it to the parent, who reacts in disgust. Or the child may find something dangerous, and the parent may have to provide knowledge and combine the child’s interest with reality-based fear.

How does this help us understand bias and prejudice and violence? Evolutionary-wise, it may have been more useful to have fear and distress more readily mobilized than interest—in terms of self-preservation and protection. This may help account for the various instances of genocide in the history of human beings. It may be that with our increasing population and economic issues, humans as a species are beginning to use their reason to collaborate rather than mobilize and fight against perceived threats—i.e., people who are different from themselves.

Computer game theory suggests that cooperation leads to greater gains for both groups rather than war (Marean, 2015). The issue for individuals and groups seems to involve how to rationally assess the validity of the fear of new stimulation—whether to work to transform it into interest or to allow the distress and anger (violence) to proceed. Knowledge and reason are the keys.

Books of the Month

Strong is the New Pretty: A Celebration of Girls Being Themselves
Author/Photographer: Kate T. Parker
New York: Workman Publishing, 2017

This is a marvelous photo-essay that highlights girls and young ladies from childhood to adolescence in photos and their subjects’ quotes and feelings.

The New Age of Sex Education: How To Talk To Your Teen About Cybersex and Pornography in the Digital Age
Author: Jennifer Weeks
New Jersey: BookBaby, 2016

This is an interesting and timely book about sex and the digital age.

Spare the Kids: Why Whupping Children Won’t Save Black America
Author: Stacey Patton, Ph.D.
Boston: Beacon Press, 2017

This is an absolutely remarkable, wonderful book dealing with black America and physical punishment. It is written by an African American woman, Stacey Patton, Ph.D., creator of Spare the Kids, an anti-corporal punishment organization.

She writes:

“The reasons black folks hit their children are supremely complex.

During Jim Crow, whupping was used as a survival tactic to teach black children proper racial etiquette so they would not risk being beaten or lynched by whites. The practice is now a trusted form of resistance to racism because we’re convinced it does more to help than to harm. However, no reputable research has ever supported this. In fact, what fifty years of research around the world has shown is that when we hit children, we are often sowing the seeds for the very behaviors and negative outcomes that whuppings are supposed to prevent—namely, disobedience, aggression, dishonesty, antisocial behavior, mental health problems, poor educational achievement, low self-esteem, early puberty, risky sex, and a host of other issues. Whuppings are literally changing brain chemistry and the brain’s physical architecture.

Choosing a nonhitting option will take a lot of work and a lot of creativity, self-control, and patience. But we must call all forms of hitting children by their real name: violence” (p. 13, 14).


Basch MF (1988). Understanding Psychotherapy: The Science Behind the Art. New York: Basic Books.

Basch MF (1976). The concept of affect: A re-examination. Journal American Psychoanalytic Association 24: 759-777.

Basch MF (1983). Empathic understanding: A review of the concept and some theoretical implications. Journal American Psychoanalytic Association 31: 101-126.

Brusatte, Stephen L (2017). Taking Wing: A Remarkable Fossil Record of the Dinosaurs that Led to Birds Reveals How Evolution Produces Entirely New Kinds of Organisms. Scientific American 316: 49-55.

Demos EV (1995). Exploring Affect: The Selected Writings of Silvan S. Tomkins. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Galatzer-Levy RM (2004). Chaotic possibilities: Toward a new model of development. Int J Psychonal 85: 419-441.

Gedo JE (2005). Psychoanalysis as Biological Science: A Comprehensive Theory. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press.

Geisel TS (1960). Green Eggs and Ham, by Dr. Seuss. New York: Beginner Books (Random House).

Holinger, PC (2003). What Babies Say Before They Can Talk: The Nine Signals Infants Use to Express Their Feelings. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Marean CW (2015). The most invasive species of all. Scientific American: August: 34-39.

Mercier H, Sperber D (2017). The Enigma of Reason. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Novick J, Novick KK (2016). Freedom to Choose: Two Systems of Self-Regulation. New York: Routledge.

Shubin N (2008). Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body. New York: Pantheon Books.

Stern DN (1985). The Interpersonal World of the Infant: A View from Psychoanalysis and Developmental Psychology. New York: Basic Books.

Tomkins SS (1991). Affect Imagery Consciousness (Volume III): The Negative Affects: Anger and Fear. New York: Springer.

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