In an atheistic era when we are told that nothing exists beyond the material and what we can perceive with our senses, it is ironic that we are also told not to judge people based on appearance. The theory, cliché and motto is that it is only “inside” that counts. 

In other words, if you make decisions based on appearance at all, you are shallow. Hateful. Elitist. Bigoted. Ignorant.

It goes without saying that appearances may be deceiving, but this is no reason to mercilessly doubt one’s intuitions or judgments based on “appearances” and prior experience.  As in the last two centuries, we content ourselves to flirt with hyper-skepticism while we wait for some sort of “quintessential” knowledge from on high.

The dirty little secret is that snap judgments and intuitions are more often right than they are wrong.  You can judge a book by its cover and appearances are important.  It turns out criminals literally look different than non-criminals.

In their experiments, Valla et al. show pictures of the faces of 32 young Caucasian men in their 20s, without scars, tattoos or excessive facial hair, all in neutral expressions.  Sixteen of them are convicted criminals, and the other sixteen are not.  Valla et al. simply ask their experimental participants to indicate how likely they think it is that each man is a certain type of criminal (murderer, rapist, thief, forger, assailant, arsonist, and drug dealer) on a 7-point Likert scale from 1 = extremely unlikely to 7 = extremely likely. 

Their results from two experiments consistently show that individuals can tell who is a criminal and who is not, by indicating that they believe the actual criminals have higher probability of being a criminal than actual noncriminals. – “Criminals Look Different From Noncriminals,” by Satoshi Kanazawa, Psychology Today

The word “prejudice” has been slandered over the years and has resulted in people questioning the whole notion of judgment and preference, altogether. 

In an interesting parallel, we no longer take words at face value or their traditional meaning, either. We are constantly trying to uncover what people “really mean” by certain words and re-interpret them. 

Thus, “prejudice,” which simply means to judge beforehand, has taken on an “evil” connotation. Judging things ahead of time is based on prior experience and it is unavoidable. In fact, it helps us identify repeated patterns and pick which ones we’d like to participate in, based on past histories. But that’s not very socially pleasing.

In the abstract, the socially pleasing narrative of anti-prejudice sounds sensible:


If I prefer A to B, am I “prejudiced” against B? Yes: I never gave B an equal chance to A. B might not be what he appears to be. It’s cruel and inhuman to hold him to that standard.


If I prefer a clean and organized house to a dirty and disorganized house, am I prejudiced against dirty and disorganized houses? Yes: it’s bigotry to assume that a dirty and disorganized house isn’t every bit as good as a clean and organized one.

Except that makes no sense. We all know that avoiding disease, dysfunction and depressing circumstances is a good idea. But the notion that some ideas are good, and some are bad, is as much bigotry in the abstract as preferring a mythical “A” to a mythical “B.”

We arrived at this point by thinking in the following way: there is no universal and objective standard for what constitutes a “clean and organized house,” therefore, “who are you to judge?” 

In a sense this is true; the line between clean and dirty will be different for everyone, in the smallest sense. For many of us, what will be acceptable varies. But it doesn’t vary widely. We all recognize a really clean house, and a really dirty one.

Unless you are a Zen master on a mountain top, every day you will interact with different people who have different standards. Thus, you will be forced into making intuitive judgments, even if unconsciously. The best thing we can do is accept this and not relegate it to the obscure corners of our mind, which is what we do by ruthlessly railing against our “prejudices” and doubting our intuitions.

Furthermore, you’re going to rely on your instincts and your ability to use your prejudices. The guy who spots the violent criminal first, and gets out of Dodge, wins. The person who spots the scam gets to have a retirement fund. Perhaps most importantly, the person who can recognize that which is irrelevant to them, can recapture hours of each day by filtering out the inappropriate.

Life offers abundant situations where judgment must be made quickly and you don’t have the luxury for casual analysis. Let’s say two punk kids show up at your house and they both want to date your daughter.  One is unkempt, flippant, and incoherent.  The other is dressed well, respectful, and articulate. 

Are you going to judge these two kids differently?  Are you going to prefer one to the other?  Are you going to give one a harder time than the other?  Darn right you are.  But the other question is:  are you prejudiced against the unkempt-ness, the flippant-ness, or the incoherent-ness?  Or is it some special combination of the three?  Or is it just some general unification of all of them?  Who is to say, right?  Even you, yourself, can probably not pin it down exactly, and more importantly, you shouldn’t have to. Your intuition and perception identify one as trouble.

Now let’s get trickier and introduce another visual factor.  If the unkempt kid and the well-dressed kid are of different races, are you judging them based on race or on unkemptness? Only you know. But a third party could easily cause a scene by insisting that you are prejudiced against skin color Y and not his general demeanor.  If you insist otherwise, it only makes you look worse as if you are trying to cover something up.

To cast prejudice as “evil” is to be prejudiced against prejudice. The idea in turn insists that there are no standards and that organized is no better than disorganized. All of the supposed rational analysis working against preference and judgment amounts to madness and compartmentalization. It is better to have these things out in the open rather than relegating them to cryptic hatreds.

If my prejudice sees a person stalking around in a hoodie, it doesn’t matter whether I profiled them racially or just profiled them. Not judging based on appearance can turn into not judging at all. Not judging at all can turn into taking no action at all. Taking no action at all could turn you into a sitting duck. The future will be inherited by those who judge.

Some nexus of experience, judgment and intuition has occurred that tells me to avoid this person. No one else should be able to force me to act differently, against my innermost feelings and sense of self-preservation, solely for the pretense of avoiding prejudice.

34 Responses to “Prejudice”

  1. 1349 says:

    A long time ago i had a (slightly) punkish-looking girlfriend. When my grandfather happened to see her, he sharply rebuked me for communicating with “untrustworthy” (etc.) people. =) He could tell, without asking, that she was from a broken family, and he was right. Really, after several years she still leads a disorganized life.

    “Criminals Look Different From Noncriminals,” by Satoshi Kanazawa, Psychology Today

    I simply chose 16 men that looked nervous or sick and 11 of them turned out to be criminals. But they could look nervous just because they were photographed by a cop for a criminal file. )))

  2. […] all around us that anyone who does not rely on evidence has made themselves blind. “Their results from two experiments consistently show that individuals can tell who is a criminal and who is not, by indicating that […]

    • A. Realist says:

      Inward distress manifests itself in outward ways. Any time I see someone who looks uncomfortable in their attire, or like they have trouble caring for themselves, I give them a wide berth.

  3. Mihai says:

    I think that a lot of problem comes from a negative use of our reasoning ability. You mentioned that in the abstract it all looks good. That’s the problem, much of the reasoning nowadays is made in the abstract, and in the abstract everything can be turned on its head and made look like common sense. A lot of post-modern hipsters can seem intelligent to the casual listener just by using verbosity and a seemingly coherent narrative.

    It is clear that when we interact with people, we do it on many levels, not just the physical one. There are many people who can figure others out at a glance.

    I did that test too- at least 18 faces. I got correct 13 answers (both criminals and non-criminals).

    • Ted Swanson says:

      Great comment. Thank you Mihai.

    • Eric says:

      In regards to some people being able to read others in a glance, they say that the eyes are the gateway to the soul. I’m not claiming to be a perfect reader of people, or for that matter that good at it at all. But in my mind (delusional or not) I seem to read a lot about people pretty quickly. I have been holding the view that we are becoming a narcissistic society that does not deal with reality, and much of that has come from what I have seen in the eyes of others. It blows my mind the lack of self-awareness that others have (or at least as I perceive it), but then again look at the greater structure that these people have all been socialized in. And lets face it, most people do not want to accept their human shortcomings, so in many ways their being is really more a defense against their lack than anything else (yet in embracing the fact we are not perfect, we can become better than that.) One last thought related to this, but it seems many people, although maybe not aware of it, are driven by their self-hate more than anything else. Scary when that becomes the collective norm. Again, these are just observations based upon what I appear to read in others. Not saying I am correct, and certainly I get it wrong sometimes even if I might be on to something.

      • crow says:

        If you are unable to say you are correct, allow me to say it for you.
        PC demands that intuition be ignored/dismantled, by labeling it as ‘bias’.
        We all have intuition, in varying degrees, but fewer and fewer make any use of it, with the result that it atrophies as a useful ability.
        This atrophied intuition is what makes a previously sane person into a leftist. A zombie, lacking the part that previously made them human.

        I would never have met my wife, had I not acted upon a dream, I had, one night, on the other side of the planet. Intuition, alone, led me to the place and time where my future was conceived.

        • Eric says:

          Yeah, I sometimes just talk like that to cover my bases and not sound too arrogant ;) But I am certain I am reading quite a bit into what it going on underneath. Don’t get me wrong, I am not perfect and have my shortcomings. But I at least try to admit it and become more than that.

          Another thought I had, sort of to the other extreme, is that there are many people that are just absolutely arrogant and self-assured, yet it is obviously they can operate and function that way mostly because we have a dysfunctional cultural that makes that a desirable trait to aim for. I have been going through some personal stuff and came across a picture I had printed out, probably over ten years ago: I cannot remember the movie name, but it is from the one where the guy puts on the glasses and he can see which people are actually droids and also sees all the “subliminal” social messages. The picture I printed out has quoted beneath it this from Jiddu Krishnamuri: “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” There are so many people I see, that are so sure of themselves yet come across a bit phony in my observation, that I think would fit into that quote. Many, many people in fact.

          • crow says:

            I often get called ‘arrogant’, when I am no such thing.
            Along with ‘moron’, ‘douche-bag’, ‘asshole’, etc.
            How people see you depends on what they prefer to see, and has very little to do with the reality, to which they are mostly blind.
            We do, indeed, inhabit a frighteningly degenerated society.
            What passes for ‘normal’ is no such thing.
            When civilizations fall, it rarely happens with a bang.
            It slowly collapses into insane ugliness.

            • Eric says:

              I probably should add, I am certain at times (maybe more often than not, I really don’t know) my view gets tainted by my own internal crap. None the less, something often doesn’t seem right with what seems to be going on. There seems to be a lack of genuineness and honesty a lot of times. I think we have become a culture where appearance is more importance than substance, where a carefully crafted caricature of self is more important than character itself. Not saying this stuff is universal among people, but it seems prevalent enough; maybe always was this way. Obviously I am preaching to the choir here about such things. In the end I suppose what I really need to focus on is my own being and the growth I can apply there, as that is something I can control.

              • crow says:

                You’re in the right place then, and you are most welcome.
                We aim to identify the malaise, isolate it, and prepare a definitive defense/innoculation against its continued spread.
                Quite apart from that, it is good to know you are not alone, in a mad, mad world.

  4. TStron says:

    Number 1 is a non criminal?! Bullshit! That mother fucker is totally up to no good. I want to beat his ass right now just because I know he’ll do something stupid in the near future. Also, did anybody get 28 or 29 wrong? I mean come on……every test has to have a few easy ones so nobody completely bombs it right?

    Oh, and you are very wrong. Prejudice is not a good thing. But other than that, great article!

    • crow says:

      Prejudice is not a good thing?
      So why is it a good thing when you do it?
      You want to beat up number one because you don’t like his face?
      Being prejudiced against prejudice, is prejudice.

      • TStron says:

        I felt like being a smart ass after writing the first paragraph. I don’t really think prejudice is a bad thing. At least not always. Bottom line I agree with the point of the article. And I don’t really want to beat him up but seriously, how is he not on the criminal list?

  5. ferret says:

    I wish I were guided by this “sense of self-preservation”, rather than wasting my life on trying things.

    I could be much happier,
    reading books only with colorful pictures,
    and never trying shrimps and other disgusting stuff.

    I missed my chance.

    • crow says:

      You find shrimps disgusting?
      That’s lucky, for shrimps.
      My wife and I were swimming, in Mexico, and the shrimp ambassador approached us, and refused to go away. For ten minutes, he climbed onto each of us, in turn, and would not accept being removed.
      Finally we had to leave the water, and put him back in the sea…

      We still enjoy shrimps, but always with a fond memory of the shrimp who tried to stop people from eating them.

      • ferret says:

        “You find shrimps disgusting?” – my first childhood impression based on their appearance.

        “the shrimp who tried to stop people from eating them.” – I guess, he demanded a different sauce, with more garlic, but due to the language barrier…

        • Sun says:


        • Ted Swanson says:

          What did shrimp ever do to you!?

          • crow says:

            Maybe it’s not so much what Shrimp did.
            Maybe it’s what it didn’t do!

          • Esotericist says:

            Hung out in the bay, filled up with heavy metals.

          • ferret says:

            “What did shrimp ever do to you!?”

            Shrimp was an unusual animal in my chldhood. When it showed up, I was not prepared and my perception of this shrimp was extremelly negative. As a result, to eat a shrimp was for me the same as to eat a worm. Again, it was in my childhood.

            Now I am an adult and I eat them. They are delicious, but I’d never learned that if I kept my prejudice based on their appearance.

            Now I understand that appearance is subjective and depends on the age, culture, background, mood, etc., of the person who is perceiving.

            Shrimp did to me nothing, I was prejudiced against it without any cause, except the sense of self-preservation.

  6. Ted Swanson says:

    BTW, I believe the same thing can be said about the words ‘bias’ and ‘discriminate’/’discrimination.’ They have taken on forbidden connotations and their literal meaning is being obscured. The opposite of ‘discriminate’ is ‘indiscriminate,’ and ‘indiscriminate’ does not generally have a positive connotation. The redefinition of words is serious business.

  7. Prejudice is economising on information. A wise man once said…

  8. […] action at all could turn you into a sitting duck. The future will be inherited by those who judge. I have repeatedly emphasized the fact that virtually all “stereotypes” are empirically true. […]

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