Howard C. Cutler, an American psychiatrist who co-wrote “The Art of Happiness in a troubled world” with Dalai Lama, wrote the following observation:
“The process of dividing people into two groups, Us and Them, is one example of categorisation. The brain really likes to categorise everything it can into groups – categorising objects, concepts, and people. Why? We live in a very complex world, and the brain’s ability to process information is limited. Categorisation is one of the brain’s favourite strategies to help simplify the torrential flood of sensory information that we’re inundated with every moment.
The most important type of categorisation in our daily life is the way that we categorise people: social categorisation. This involves identifying that person as belonging to a particular racial, ethnic, gender, or other type of group, and then classifying the individual as belonging to Us or Them.”
Yes, it is part of our human nature to categorise people due to our brain’s tendency to take mental shortcuts to make sense of complex information received in our mind. When we deal or interact with a person, and we perceive the person to belong to a certain category, we tend to generalise that the person is just like all the other people within that category.
For example, when we receive a cold call from an insurance agent or financial advisor, we may tend to think they are all the same, trying to pester us to buy insurance or investment policies from them. A friend whom I met yesterday related to me how he received angry responses from some people when he made cold calls as part of his job to introduce insurance policies to potential clients. Perhaps they think he is one of those persistent salespeople or telemarketers. I know my friend well enough to know that he is a person of integrity and does not pester other people.
Similarly, when we see someone describing oneself as a christian, our mental defense shield goes up, thinking that person is like most other christians who are fundamentalists or religious imperialists. But not all christians are the same. Just as not all financial advisors are out to amass profit for themselves at the clients’ expense, so not all christians are out to condemn others. But it is our human tendency to paint them with the same brush due to memory shortcuts and reflex actions for the sake of protecting our own well-being.
Another example is that we may tend to see Germany as the “evil side” during World War II. But not all Germans are pro-Nazi or battle-hungry. Many Germans were peace-loving. In fact, those who attempted to assassinate the Nazi dictator, Adolf Hitler, during the war were Germans themselves, who wanted to stop their country from continuing the war.
How do we overcome the human tendency to categorise, while maintaining the balance of protecting our own well-being? My answer is meditation. When we take time to be still and meditate, we begin to see the whole picture, and see each individual as they are, and not what they appear to be from the outside.
Sometimes we may find ourselves finetuning our categorisation. For example, we may say mainstream or evangelical christians are close-minded, but in comparison, progressive christians are more open-minded. So now instead of painting christians with a broad brush, we have used a fine brush to paint and differentiate them by their varying shades and tones. Even so, there will always be exceptions that stand out from the norm. Hence, we need meditation to tell the difference.