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Preconceived Notions and Their Impact on Thinking and Behavior

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

“A Secret Kept,” is an interesting novel written by Tatiana DeRosnay that reveals how our pre conceived thinking affects our attitudes toward people. The story explores a son’s and daughter’s search for information about their mother, who died when they were quite young. The writing is interspersed with letters written to the mother by her lover. In a discussion with several neighbors who had read this novel, they all admitted that they were quite surprised to discover that the love letters were sent by a woman. Despite other clues in the story, these readers assumed that the writer was a man. This novel is parallel to an experience I had on the evening previous to my writing this blog.

Last evening I was leisurely talking with some friends when the conversation moved to the topic of education. It started when I discussed a newspaper article about a student from the local high school who just won a full scholarship to Harvard University. What was remarkable about the story is that full scholarships to Ivy League universities are rare and difficult to achieve.

I was shocked when the group revealed very prejudicial and stereotyped attitudes toward people from minority groups. It all started when one person stated, “Well, so what, minorities are given preferential treatment under ‘affirmative action laws.'” Others joined in by making very prejudicial statements such as, “Yeah, minorities get preferential treatment and don’t deserve entry into top schools because their grades aren’t as high.”

My quick retort was that the student was white and not a minority. The whole group expressed surprise that a white boy could win a full scholarship. The emphasis was not on the difficulty of being admitted but on the full scholarship which, admittedly, is a rare achievement. That aside, I quickly informed them that the student was a girl, not a boy. More surprise was expressed.

This discussion was held with a group of educated people whose life achievements were impressive but who unconsciously made two prejudicial assumptions. Assumption one was that the student came from a minority group. Assumption two was that the student was male instead of female.

The problem of holding preconceived notions as being true is that they can lead us to very negative and critical beliefs about others and that can affect our behaviors toward others. For example, I know someone who reacted negatively to anti Obama political Emails, characterizing them as  racist. His attitude about this was so very strong that he concluded that anyone who is anti Obama, in the next presidential election, is racist. In point of fact, the emails were the typical type of electioneering politics and didn’t have anything to do with race. In addition, his assumption that anyone who is anti Obama is racist is nothing but another example of the prejudicial stereotyping that he finds so offensive.

I know another person who is convinced that all Republicans are racist and elitist, while all Democrats are good and moral people. I remind the reader that characterizing people as all one way or all another is another example of stereotyped thinking that affects how we vote and as well as how we treat other people.

As we approach the next election, and as we live our lives, it is important to keep in mind the fact that it is better to have an open mind about other people and to not allow ourselves to be guided by beliefs founded on stereotypes. Rather than Republican or Democrat, vote for who you believe are the best candidates. Vote for or against Obama based on what you see as his strengths and weaknesses and not based on his race. Listen to good news about young people and their achievements without fitting them into some preconceived system of thought that reduces the value of their achievements. Understand that people are able to perform academically and athletically whether they are male or female. There was a time when it was believed that women were not capable of becoming medical doctors, veterinarians, physicists and engineers. Look around you and see how things have changed.

Your comments are strongly encouraged.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

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