By Robert Pagliarini,
Tribune Media Services
Several weeks ago at a fundraising event, I was introduced to a man in his late 40s. He had perfect hair, a GQ grin and was dressed impeccably in a custom suit. The only thing that sparkled more than his white teeth was his gold Rolex. As I was shaking his hand, I immediately assessed what kind of person he was, but, after speaking with him, my initial characterization was destroyed and so was my spirit. I realized that I had unfairly (and inaccurately) prejudged who he was.
I immediately thought about a disturbing exercise I participated in at a branding seminar a few years ago. The instructor handed out 20 index cards to each of the 20 attendees sitting around a large conference room table. On each index card, he told us to write down our immediate impressions of each person -- what is your gut reaction; what kind of person is this; do they look honest; would you do business with her; does he look smart? Dutifully, I fired off my assessments. The instructor then bundled all 20 cards for each person so we could read what others thought of us.
Not good. I was floored at what people wrote about me. "You think I'm what?" I remember asking. "But you don't even know me. Why would you think that? That's not me at all!" Yes, a few were accurate, but many were completely off target. Not only wrong, but not flattering. It turns out I wasn't alone. Nearly everyone in the seminar had experienced something similar.
Most of us might not even be aware how often we stereotype others. What's the first thing you think when you see a teenager with sagging jeans and tattoos? What about an older man accompanied by a much younger woman? How about a migrant worker? A man with a turban? Do you prejudge? Do you form opinions of their character, work ethic, personality, intelligence and trustworthiness?
Prejudice is defined as a favorable or unfavorable opinion or feeling formed beforehand or without knowledge, thought or reason. Prejudice can be the result of our experience and conditioning, but research in the field of neuroscience shows prejudice may be an innate trait -- an unconditioned response that is not the result of learning.
It's difficult not to prejudge. We are wired to quickly assess our environment and make flash assumptions and generalizations. These generalizations are essential because they allow us to predict, simplify and categorize our world. This has undoubtedly served us well evolutionarily.
The problem, of course, is when we assign negative beliefs to people or groups of people unfairly, and when we categorize all of "them" as having similar characteristics -- racism being the most extreme and disgusting form of negative prejudice.
This is all somewhat depressing, unless you think about it differently. If there's not much we can do about immediately and automatically categorizing and creating stereotypes, who's to say our stereotypes and prejudices have to be negative? Why can't we create positive prejudices? It turns out, we can.
After my botched impression at the fundraiser and reflecting on my seminar experience, I decided to try a little experiment. I wasn't going to try to avoid making generalizations or prejudgments; I was going to encourage it. I thought about the perfect stereotype. What is the one thing I want to prejudge for everybody? Each of us is unique. Each of us has fears and dreams. We all have something to offer the world. Since God created this person, there is something worthwhile within them that I should respect and honor. In just the few weeks that I've done this, it has already had a profound effect on my outlook and interactions.
Ideally you'd approach the world and those in it with a blank slate -- completely void of all preconceived beliefs and expectations. If you find this to be as difficult as I have, consider creating a single positive prejudice through which you view everyone -- the woman who just cut you off in traffic, the people who live over there and behave strangely, and, yes, even the guy with the GQ grin.
Robert Pagliarini is a CBS MoneyWatch columnist and the author of "The Other 8 Hours: Maximize Your Free Time to Create New Wealth & Purpose" and the national best-seller "The Six Day Financial Makeover." Visit YourOther8Hours.com.
This column was originally printed in the January 2 - January 15, 2011 edition.