As I write this article, my two year old daughter is watching a TV programme for toddlers. It’s got irritating music, grating voices and some of the worst animation you’ve ever seen. But it’s supposed to be educational in some way. The educational element right now is teaching kids to categorise by playing an odd-one-out game.

The truth is, the human ability to categorise and discriminate is built into us

It’s basically teaching her how to discriminate.

Right now it’s showing her how to discriminate a red circle from a group of yellow triangles – but you can see this is the beginning of a slippery slope that ends in hate crimes and Klan meetings.

The truth is, the human ability to categorise and discriminate is built into us. All of us, whether we like it or not, are to some degree racist, sexist and culturocentrist. Denying it isn’t helpful. And like the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step programme, the first step is admitting you have a problem.

So, let me start.

I am a racist, sexist, ableist, ageist, judgemental, discriminatory bigot. I don’t want to be. And I try hard every day to deal with my prejudices.


Of course, I don’t look like a racist or sexist. I’m the caucasian half of a mixed-race marriage. I have two daughters who I want every opportunity for. I’ve spent years speaking out about the sexual, racial and socio-economic imbalance of the advertising industry. But I know that I categorise people and probably treat them differently according to that categorisation. And anyone who thinks they don’t do the same is lying to themselves.

So let’s look at why we all do that and how we can address it.

The categorisation game

Humans aren’t blank canvases when they’re born. If you can forgive a highly-inaccurate computer analogy, we have a kind of operating system that has inbuilt functionality and basic wiring for our brains. We’re born with nine reflexes that help us as infants along with a structure for new knowledge and skills. As soon as we’re born we’re consuming information about the world and trying to make sense of it. One of the ways we do that is by using our inbuilt skills of categorisation and pattern recognition. Quickly, we learn to identify the faces of our parents and know when a face isn’t familiar. And we respond accordingly. As an infant, we’ve just created our first ‘us’ and ’them’. It’s natural.

This ability to categorise becomes increasingly important as we get older. We are constantly bombarded with information and we need to be able to filter and process it effectively. So we become experts at grouping things and generalising. Let’s try it out.

Which one is the odd one out?:

The chances are you picked the yellow leaf. You picked it on colour. That makes you a leaf-racist, right?

No, of course it doesn’t. You’re merely acknowledging that there’s a difference there. Denying it would be ridiculous and dishonest.

Let’s try again. Which one is the odd one out?:

Did you choose the horse? If so, why? It’s not that you’re wrong – it is the only land animal there – but there are other ways of categorising the group. You could have split them into mammals and non-mammals. The horse, the whale and the orca are all air-breathing, warm-blooded mammals. The clown fish isn’t. Or you could have singled-out the orca for being the only carnivore. Or the whale for its baleen.

These additional categorisations require more knowledge and the ability to move beyond our first gut reaction. But they’re useful. By being able to see a different way of categorising the creatures, it makes the first – and most obvious – categorisation less important and less interesting.

An obvious and simplistic categorisation doesn’t require effort

An obvious and simplistic categorisation doesn’t require effort. And this is the kind of categorisation that lies at the heart of discrimination. Colour, sex, disability, accent and attractiveness are all obvious forms of categorisation. But when we’re aware of other ways of categorising people, we ironically place less importance on any one categorisation. Because there’s always going to be a category that includes that person in our group.

There is another way you could have answered the last ‘odd one out’ question. You could have said “I refuse to subscribe to your notion of any of these creatures being singled out for their difference – they are all DNA-based biological organisms”. That may sound smart and radical but it’s also pretty unhelpful. It’s the way that many people who try to sound right-on and politically-correct approach discrimination.

We need to acknowledge everyone’s differences and imbalances if we want to make a change. Think of it like a seesaw. All the weight is currently at one end. The only way to balance that seesaw is to go to the other extreme (which is the combative approach) or coax people closer to the middle (which is the collaborative approach). Standing at the centre of the seesaw or jumping off and denying it exists doesn’t take us anywhere.

We need to acknowledge everyone's differences and imbalances if we want to make a changeClick To Tweet

Studying the right thing

Over the years there have been plenty of studies that have tried to link discriminatory attitudes to intelligence. And some of them have succeeded in finding basic correlations. One of the most recent of these is a 2016 University of Toronto study of data collected by the United State’s General Social Survey (could there be some form of underlying culturocentrism intrinsic to this study itself?). It used verbal ability as a correlation for intelligence and discovered that the most ‘intelligent’ third were about half as racist as the least ‘intelligent’ third.

That confirms your suspicions, doesn’t it?

However, this kind of study reveals another kind of discrimination: stupidism.

We’re using classical (and highly flawed) measures of how smart people are so we can identify as the clever ones and feel better about ourselves. They give us permission to be intolerant of the intolerant. They’re allowing us to discriminate against the kind of people who are more likely to discriminate.

That makes us guilty of the crime we’re investigating.

Whilst measuring an ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality these studies are successfully reinforcing another ‘us’ and ‘them’ categorisation. (And by calling the academics out on this I’m creating a further ‘us’ and ‘them’ scenario. Sheesh! This is a difficult area to unpick.)

People who display prejudice tend to have a strong need to make fast and firm judgements

Fortunately, there are other studies that look at discrimination from a less discriminatory point of view. And one that offers us more potential to deal with the matter. These tests link prejudice with an inability to handle ambiguity. People who display prejudice tend to have a strong need to make fast and firm judgements. They like the quick and unambiguous categorisations that can help them make uncomplicated decisions.

So it turns out that regardless of your ethnic origin, racism is a black and white issue.

Arne Roets, one of the authors of the study, went on to say:

“Social categories are useful to reduce complexity, but the problem is that we also assign some properties to these categories. This can lead to prejudice and stereotyping.”

So categorisation isn’t the problem – it’s the assumptions, generalisations and preconceived ideas we apply to the categories that cause the problem.

It’s the assumptions, generalisations and preconceived ideas we apply to categories that cause the problemClick To Tweet

Sweeping generalisations

Right, here is a picture of me and one of our contributors, Simon White.

photo by Julian Hanford

It’s probably not that much of a surprise that we get mistaken for each other from time to time. But our similarities go way beyond that. We’re both writers. We both worked in advertising. We’re both obsessed with creative thinking. We both help companies solve problems. We both live in South London. (Plus lots of other slightly freaky similarities).

So does that mean you can take all of these things that strongly define us and apply them to other members of the Disturbingly Handsome Bald Man’s Club?

Clearly not.

Other club members have their own characters and passions and defining elements.

But our lazy brains don’t tend to work that way. Just because the only Australian we ever worked with was rude and abrasive, we tend to then apply those character flaws at a national level (sorry Australians – I’m just using you as an example). We use that flawed understanding as a lens to interpret the behaviour of all future Australians we meet. Like Jeff at the coffee shop who makes our flat white every morning without a smile because he’s frantically trying to stay on top of the morning rush and remember everyone’s orders. Regardless, he’s just strengthened our prejudice. It’s now even harder for the next Aussie we meet to change our mind.

If we don’t pay attention to our innate tendency to pigeon-hole like this, our whole life can be viewed through lenses of negativity and generalisations.

Hate clubs? Join the club.

Take a quick peek at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. If you’re still alive, you’ve covered off the ‘physiological needs’ step. Well done! Most of you will have passed the ‘safety and security step’. Nice! Now it’s the tricky ‘love and belonging stage’ followed by the ‘self-esteem’ stage. And both of these require you feeling included in a group and respected by that group.

When I was at primary school the kids in my class were all members of the We Hate David Gang. I was the only person who wasn’t allowed to join. Not a very exclusive membership, you have to admit. But a very exclusive non-membership. I was the ’them’ and they were the ‘us’. It could never have existed without my involuntary participation.

Inclusion can’t exist without exclusion. In fact, the more exclusive a group is, the more excluding it has to be. The human need for clubs and gangs and groups and communities is as much about defining what we are not as it is about defining who we are.

The more exclusive a group is, the more excluding it has to be

Companies are the most common kind of club. The interview process is there to work out if you’re worthy of membership. Once you’re on board, the company culture and processes are there to discourage individuality and turn you into a company-person. There are written rules and a far longer list of assumed rules. Individuality of thought and approach is discouraged. It’s more about “do it this way and show us your workings” than “Hey, I’ve never seen it done that way before. Great work!”.

So once people are part of this club, they’re under pressure to fit in. They’re expected to maintain the status quo and balance of the group. And that leads to discrimination at a cultural level. Employees switch off their own moral compass and make decisions ‘for the company’s best interests’. And individuals become corporate antibodies that eliminate perceived threats to the corporate organism. They are merely enacting their understanding of the organisation’s beliefs.

But justice shall prevail because business is the ultimate example of survival of the fittest. A study from Washington University estimates that 40% of today’s Fortune 500 companies won’t exist in 10 years. The traditional business approach of eliminating the uncomfortable and the new is a highway to irrelevance. Companies that refuse to address diversity will have a harder time surviving than those that embrace it.

Companies that refuse to address diversity will have a harder time surviving than those that embrace it.Click To Tweet

What can we learn from all this?

This article isn’t disaster-porn. I’m not saying that prejudice is natural so why try and fight it. I’m saying that if we understand it better we can do something about it. So here are some ideas.

Admit that you’ve got a problem

Even if you think you’re completely non-discriminatory, spend some time working out your prejudices. They may be subtle. How do you feel about former prisoners? Are you comfortable dealing with someone with autism? Do you have a problem with football teams or political affiliations or obese people or skin-heads? Just be aware of it. Because you can’t address a problem if you don’t know you’ve got it.

Acknowledge your discomfort

If you find yourself uncomfortable with someone who’s different to you, ask yourself why. Is it just the fear of the unknown? Do you have assumptions that are causing you to judge that person’s motives? Did you have a bad experience with someone from that ‘category’? Are you worried about what they might be thinking about you? Spend a bit of time understanding yourself and why you’re feeling the way you do. If you understand the problem, it’s easier to deal with it.

Aim to create inclusive categories

I’ve shown you that categorisation is natural. We tend to use it to exclude others from our little clubs – but you can turn that on its head. You can also create categories that include people and allow you to identify with them in a positive way. Challenge yourself to create categories that include people as part of your group. List the aspects you have in common and the beliefs you share. If you get into the habit of this, you’ll start to break down and challenge your own discriminatory biases.

Inaction is a form of action

As you can see, tackling our natural tendency to filter, categorise and discriminate takes a bit of effort. And it requires a level of self-analysis that will make most of us feel uncomfortable. After all, it’s shining a spotlight on some of the uglier parts of our character.

But the alternative is to live a life of distrust and fear where we unwittingly (and wittingly) harm others.

Personally, I think it’s worth the effort. It’s something you should do for your own good. And it’s something all businesses should invest in for their staff.

So who’s in?

Tackling our natural tendency to filter, categorise and discriminate takes a bit of effortClick To Tweet BirssDiversity & Divergencybigotry,business,categorisation,culturocentrism,discrimination,generalisations,intelligence,interview,judgement,organisation,racism,recruitment,sexism,stereotyping,stupidism
As I write this article, my two year old daughter is watching a TV programme for toddlers. It's got irritating music, grating voices and some of the worst animation you’ve ever seen. But it’s supposed to be educational in some way. The educational element right now is teaching kids...
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Dave Birss
Founder and Editor at
Dave is obsessed with creativity. He's been a musician, illustrator, stand-up comedian, poet, radio DJ, television presenter and advertising creative director. He also wrote A User Guide to the Creative Mind.
Now he runs Open for Ideas and helps individuals and companies become more creative.
You can find him speaking at conferences all over the world. And sharing his thinking in boardrooms, universities and dimly-lit pubs.