Why we think in boxes and what we can do about it

One of the big issues in the current debate on inclusion and the polarized atmosphere in which it is taking place is that we lose sight of the fact that every individual person is unique and should be treated that way. If we could just talk person to person, with genuine interest in each other’s backgrounds, feelings, fears and dreams, I truly believe there will be space for everyone to be heard, feel understood and have the opportunity to succeed (or fail) on their own merits.

Based on my knowledge of how the brain works, here’s my two cents about thinking in boxes and what we can do about it.

Nature/instinct: Whenever you meet someone, you immediately classify them as safe or unsafe. This instinctive reaction has been invaluable to human survival and is not a product of conscious thought. In other words, you can’t help reacting to other people when you meet them. However, you can influence what you do about your reaction. 

Nature/thoughts: As putting people etc. into boxes has worked so well for the reptilian brain, our conscious mind also likes to create boxes into which to neatly organize the world around us. These random boxes, as well as the process of putting people into them, are products of conscious thoughts and therefore can be influenced or changed by other conscious thought. When you are aware of this, you can catch yourself reacting to someone and have additional thoughts: how much of my reaction and categorization is actually based on reality and on the individual in front of me? Is this having this box really helpful to have?

Nurture: As to deciding which people to put into which boxes, whether instinctively or through conscious thought, this process is completely dependent upon nurture. We are taught -by our parents, peers, society, media, etc. – who belongs in which box. And the wonderful thing about anything that has been learned is that is can also be unlearned.