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  • Posted on September 17, 2014 at 10:00 AM

So, a basic assumption of statistics is that you can create a framework, select a random sample, and produce survey results that are generalizable to the general population. This has been asserted as a fact in every attempt I have made to study statistics. This time around I’m admitting right off the bat that I don’t buy it.

Maybe it’s that I don’t understand where this “fact” came from and how they reached the conclusion that it’s true. More likely, it’s the “fact” that I am and always have been something of an “outlier.” You cannot talk to someone who has the same age as me, the same gender as me, the same race as me, and who is living in the same area as me and conclude that their views (the answers to the survey) can be generalized to me.

This assumption of generalizability leaves out far too much that is of personal significance:

  • Would she have children?
  • Would her children have disabilities?
  • Would those disabilities include autism, sensory processing disorder, and epilepsy?
  • Would her children be teenagers?
  • Would she have a disability?
  • Would that disability be fibromyalgia?
  • Would she own her own business?
  • Would she be going to graduate school?
  • Would she already have a graduate degree?
  • Would she have dabbled in politics long enough to become disgusted with our system?
  • Would she vote despite that disgust?
  • Would she make every effort to be an informed voter?
  • Would she have experienced life below the poverty line?
  • Would she have struggled to lift her family out of poverty?
  • Would she have experienced life as a married teen mother?

I could go on and on. The point, however, has been made. The things that shape my answers cannot be attributed to my race, my age, or my gender—at least, not exclusively. My experiences—who I am—shapes how I see the world. And that shapes my answers to surveys. While I may be an outlier, I’m pretty sure the same is true of everyone else and that those generalized factors aren’t the major determinants of their experiences.

How can we possibly generalize people based on random attributes when those attributes aren’t really what makes them who they are?

Part of me wonders if inequality based on age, race, and gender persist with such prevalence because our society, at its core, still believes that those attributes really do determine who and what we are.

On Engaging and Prejudice (1 of 3)

  • Posted on June 27, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Executive Summary:  To engage with others we must actively participate in our interactions with them.  This requires us to exert mental effort and also risks challenging our thoughts, feelings, and worldviews.  Because we do not want to exert the necessary effort or take this risk with people who are very different from ourselves, we rely on stereotypes.  This leads to prejudice and discrimination.  In order to avoid prejudice and discrimination, we have to engage with others—especially those who are different from ourselves.


Engage has many definitions; I tend to use it in the more general sense of “to involve oneself or to participate,” which is the context in which I use it now.

Engaging is an active state of being.  You can engage in a job.  Say you’re sorting through information at work.  While you’re doing this you could be distracted by whatever is on your mind.  Or you could engage in the task, focusing your mental prowess on the task at hand.  You will likely produce higher quality work if you engage on the job.  You can engage in a conversation.  Say you’re talking with your child.  While you’re doing this you could be distracted by the mental to-do list running through your head.  Or you could engage in the conversation, focusing your attention on what is important to your child.  You can engage in a story.  Say you’re reading a book or watching a movie.  You could go into that “glazed” state where you are absorbing the entertainment and “rotting your brain.”  Or you could engage in the story by paying attention to the creative work and trying to experience what the artists were trying to express.  You bring something of yourself to the experience and come out of it with something truly unique—a communion of sorts between the artist and yourself.  In each of these examples, you are bringing something of yourself to the task and making for a richer experience by engaging.  It requires both an effort on your part and willingness to open yourself up to something outside of yourself, but in return you get a higher quality experience.

 I propose that one of the reasons prejudice (and the discrimination that results from prejudice) is so prevalent in our society is because of a lack of engagement.  I propose this lack of engagement can also explain the divisive politics that rages through the U.S. and other examples of polarization.

Basically my theory is this:  To communicate effectively and productively with someone who thinks and feels differently than you do, you need to engage with that person.  The more differently that person thinks or feels, the more you need to engage with that person in order to gain the kind of understanding necessary for genuine communication to occur.  We fail to do so for two basic reasons.  First, engaging is work.  It necessitates that we exert a significant amount of mental effort.  It is much easier to just be there, not really listening, not really understanding; relying on our assumptions to fill in the gaps left by our failure to engage.  Second, engaging can be uncomfortable.  When we engage in someone who is significantly different from ourselves we are willfully challenging our own assumptions, ideas, and worldviews.  This is inherently uncomfortable and human beings tend to develop self-defense mechanisms to prevent such a challenge from occurring.

So, instead of engaging we stereotype.  These stereotypes can be positive, but are more often negative.  Even when positive, these stereotypes are destructive because they prevent understanding and dehumanize the “other” in the process.  In this sense, stereotypes are very similar to a template.  Imagine you are trying to start a new blog.  You find a template that has the right look (stereotype), but after you start using it you realize the content you want to include doesn’t fit the template.  The work-intensive method would be to start from scratch and build your own template that has the look you want but also meets the needs of the content you want to provide.  A less work-intensive method would be to modify the template to account for the content you want to add but cannot fit.  However, it is more likely that you will simply trash the content that doesn’t fit—you don’t really need it anyway—and stick to the template you’ve chosen.  If people were blogs, then the template would be what they are (doctor, Republican, person with disabilities) and the content would be who they are (their thoughts, feelings, experiences, and the conclusions they’ve drawn from them).  Our failure to engage trashes the content of the person in favor of the imperfect, inappropriate template we chose to interpret their content through.

This occurs at what I would call the macro level.  We stereotype groups of people and put them into the templates we’ve chosen for them.  When we meet individuals who belong to those groups, we trash any content (who they are) in favor of the template we assume they fit into (our own concept of what they are).  This also occurs at what I would call the micro level, which constitutes using templates of people we know instead of engaging with them at a particular time and place.  That will be the subject of my next post.

The Mystery that is Eye Contact

  • Posted on November 28, 2009 at 7:24 AM

I am taking a Career Development course and cannot help but find this week’s discuss a bit disturbing.  Perhaps it helps that I am also taking a Human Resources Management course.

The Question:  Share with the group your experience with job interviews?

One Answer:  For me, eye contact is a must.

One Response:  If I was interviewing someone and they didn’t make eye contact there is no way I would hire them.

(Exact wording has been changed, because I did not request permission to quote these students.)

The questions roil in my mind:  What is eye contact?  Why are people so convinced it’s important?  Why do people not understand their assumptions regarding why someone is not making eye contact are just that—assumptions?

Even were I not immersed in the issue of neurodiversity I would recognize these statements as acts of prejudice.  Contrary to what some are taught, our social “rules” regarding eye contact are by no means universal.  Claims have been made in this class that eye contact is a sign of respect and trustworthiness.  Yet, in some cultures, eye contact is a sign of disrespect or aggression.  Discriminating against someone because of their national origin (and the culture thereof) is against the law for most businesses with a certain number of employees.  As people concerned with autism also know, there are disabilities (as recognized by United States law) that involve lack of eye contact.  Discriminating against someone because of their disability when they are capable of performing the job is also against the law.  An employer would have to include eye contact in the job description, and be able to justify its inclusion with evidence, to properly exclude someone from employment on the basis of lack of eye contact during an interview.

Perhaps my peers do not realize this.  I have related that information, but it’s too early to see if I will get a response.  The sad reality, however, is that there are employers now who do discriminate against potential employees on the basis of lack of eye contact.  They should not do so, yet the behavior persists and seemingly few people call attention to this form of discrimination.

The questions roil around in my head.  I’ve heard answers, but they all seem so empty.