Breaking the Prejudice Habit

The day after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, a teacher in Riceville, Iowa, Jane Elliott, was struggling to explain prejudice in a way her third grade students could grasp and decided to do an experiment that immediately transformed the classroom dynamic. She divided kids into two groups –blue-eyed and brown-eyed– and declared brown-eyed students to be superior. For an entire day, she rewarded those students with extra recess time, while forcing the others to wear collars and sit in the back of the room. The browns responded to their new status with relish, quickly slipping into the master role, shunning former friends. The blues were not so fortunate. Not only did they suffer the indignities of being treated as second class citizens, but their self-esteem and performance plummeted. Tasks took longer, ostensibly because they couldn’t think as fast (due to the collars). The next day, Ms. Elliott declared that she had been wrong. The blue-eyed students were superior; in an instant, those students raced to the front of the classroom, eager to collar their brown-eyed masters and enjoy the fruits of superiority.

The lessons of that experiment stayed with the individuals well into adulthood. When they found themselves slipping into the habit of prejudice, they remembered what being “inferior” felt like, the burden of a collar marking them as “lesser.” And in that present moment, they became awake–all over again—to the dangers of being prejudiced.

The Prejudice Habit

There’s a book called The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. It was very popular, but focused primarily on personal wellness of known habits. The problem is, you can’t analyze (and change) a habit if you don’t know you’re a prisoner to it.

Stereotype and prejudice are different; both can block negotiations. Stereotypes are beliefs about people based on their membership in a group, and can be positive, negative, or neutral. Our brains routinely engage in this type of sorting: we tend to associate with people who are like us, and make assumptions about their worth based on the sameness of their ethnicity, class, or religious affiliation. Negative stereotypes cause us to exaggerate differences between us, see the “other” as homogeneous, and ignore any evidence that contradicts our notion of the stereotype. In negotiations, this can lead to failure. If you’ve developed a negative stereotype about lawyers’ trustworthiness, I will, as your negotiating partner, have to work harder to overcome it, assuming I know about it.

Prejudice is a negative belief about a group of individuals. Prejudice usually gives people a reason to blame/scapegoat the “other.” We tend to fear this group, misunderstand it, or feel superior to it.

Prejudice Can be Broken
Yet with conscious effort, any bad habit, even deeply held prejudice can be broken. The challenge is to bring awareness to it by moving it from the abstract to the concrete.

Transformative Negotiators

Transformative negotiators acknowledge our inter-dependence as human beings and make connections. We don’t make assumptions; we avoid stereotyping. We’re aware of our prejudices, and make positive efforts to overcome them. We cultivate compassion and empathy, and spend our time closing gaps.

Michèle Huff, J.D. is an intellectual property and technology licensing practitioner. She is a speaker on the topic of negotiation and is author of The Transformative Negoatiator WebThe Transformative Negotiator (Unhooked Books, April 2015). After 20+ years working with Fortune 500 companies in the Silicon Valley, she is currently at the University of New Mexico supporting their research mission by facilitating industry relationships with research-active faculty, and managing and motivating teams in the legal department and the office of sponsored projects. She was recently honored as one of 30 recipients of the 2014 Women of Influence award by the Albuquerque Business First.