Mental File Folders

Social psychologists suggest our brains are filled with mental file folders of sort that enable us to take short cuts when bumping into or first interacting with people. Labels such as male, female, rich, poor, overweight, African-American, professor, Wall Street banker, southerner, foreigner, libertarian, conservative republican, liberal democrat, elderly, homeless, aspergers, gay, lesbian, environmentalist, evangelical Christian. We also have thinner files that might be (awkwardly) labeled, “male, conservative republican, evangelical Christian”.

Without our mental file folders, we’d have to make sense of each new person from scratch; consequently, we’d be too overwhelmed to function normally.

The question though is how thick are our respective folders? In our increasingly diverse world, we can get into serious trouble when our folders are so thin that we succumb to inaccurate stereotypes. Everyone has preconceived notions about other groups of people. The best antidote for negative preconceived notions is getting to know a wider range of diverse individuals through direct daily experience. Only then can you get a feel for a key cross-cultural insight or sensibility, that the individual differences within each file folder are typically greater than between them.

Our challenge as multicultural people is to do two things simultaneously, to recognize that there are group patterns, themes, and differences, and to recognize that the individual differences within each group are usually greater than the differences between groups. There’s lots of evidence that not everyone is up to this relatively sophisticated, multitasking, social psychological balancing act.

Fast forward to Thursday night’s training ride with about thirty other cyclists. Early on, heading out-of-town, I was spinning casually in the back (like Lance Armstrong) when a new rider introduced himself. At 20mph we talked for the next ten minutes. A military officer with about 20 years experience. Our worldviews couldn’t have been more different. We discussed drones in Afghanistan, the McChrystal firing, and his work more generally.

I’m about as dovish as they come and he was all hawk. I was unpleasantly surprised by his “I sleep well at night” lack of introspection. Cue the “military personnel” folder. Fortunately in that folder are a few “pieces of paper” representing the marines I met while teaching in Ethiopia. They were based at the US embassy and would travel to our school to hoop it up with us once or twice a week. We became friends. They invited a few of us to the embassy in the middle of the night to watch the World Series, and without knowing it, they helped me rethink my preconceived notions of military personnel.

So I’m adding my new cycling acquaintance to my “military personnel” folder, but not overgeneralizing about all military personnel based upon my admittedly brief interaction with him.

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