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Moderation as a Way to Address Prejudice
Jan 1, 2013

Of all the faculties and senses that man is endowed with, moderation is one of the most essential virtues. Moderation concerns all people within society, and can become an unattainable virtue unless all members of society have gained a sufficient level of straightforwardness in their thoughts and actions. That straightness of conduct can only be sustained if a sufficient number of people in that society understand, desire and practice the virtue of moderation.

John B. Watson and his colleague conducted an experiment if an emotion could be generalized from one subject to another subject similar to the first. He targeted a baby, called Little Albert, who had no fear of small furry animals like white rats at that time. To carry out their hypothesis, Watson and colleague presented a white rat for Little Albert to play with. But after a while, the researchers made a very loud disturbing noise whenever Little Albert attempted at reaching for the white rat. After several times the researchers paired the loud noise with Little Albert’s attempts at reaching that white rat, a time came to the point where Little Albert was scared of the animal on its own—without the loud sound. From that on, Little Albert generalized his fear to anything furry, including non-white rabbits and dogs. (Watson & Rayner, 1920)

From early years of childhood, we have directly and indirectly learnt how an excess and shortage of anything could be undesirable. No matter who an individual is or where he or she comes from, that individual knows that eating too much can cause a bloated feeling, eating too less can harm health, talking too much could hurt others, and so does not talking at all. Moderation is such a universal virtue that every individual from every religion, ethnicity, and background knows that a life lived in moderation always reaps the most benefits.

Not just on trivial daily matters, moderation can address any issue that has significant relations to human life. Moderation is related to healthy lifestyles, satisfactory life outcomes, healthy relationships, and many more. But one aspect of humankind that is faced everyday—yet it seems to be ignored most of the time—is the mindset, way of thinking, or the cognition. We can have times when there is a “shortage” of the mindset, but more problematic is the instances when some individuals choose to adopt an extreme way of thinking.

Consider the case of Little Albert above, because of one tragedy Little Albert generalized his feelings and fear that anything furry was scary. Probably because that white furry rat seemed to produce such a loud scary noise, Little Albert thought, “so, anything furry MUST be scary too…” This is one example where way of thinking can be extreme. Moderation does not seek to moderate this extreme way of thinking, rather it seeks to moderate way of thinking generally so it is not as extreme.

How moderation is related to prejudice

As mentioned above, moderation can address many issues, and this includes prejudice. Prejudice is defined as the way we see others—the social orientation that is based on a membership of a particular group (Brown, 2010). To understand prejudice, one has to note that prejudice comes from a generalized attribution or characterization (or what is commonly known as a stereotype). Prejudice is the emotional aspect of stereotypical thinking. Like Little Albert, the infant generalized his prejudice to anything furry, and although Albert’s reaction to those furry objects was dramatic, our modern prejudicial reaction is usually more subtle and hidden.

In relation to the issue of prejudice, moderation is synonymized to being fair-minded—a way of thinking that employs the middle point between two extremes. Prejudice is, in its basic form, a way of thinking that is located in one extreme. The extremity comes from the aspect of generalization of prejudicial mindset in its beholder’s way of thinking. But where do these thoughts come from? People’s tendency to generalize their observation of a trait of a person to his or her group members always comes from the external sources.

One study supported the notion that people obtain prejudicial thinking from external sources (Aboud, 1976). The research method involved asking participants to seek information on three fictitious groups. Prior to seeking information, the participants were shown statistics of certain traits related to these groups. This was done to “set” the minds of the participants on the traits that were more likely to be shown by the members of these groups. Consequently, when seeking information on the groups after shown the statistics of the groups, the participants were more likely to “confirm” what they had been told from the statistics, allowing a generalization to occur in their mindset.

Availability heuristics and their role in prejudicial thinking

Why do humans generalize more than they should, or at all? Perhaps it is because of the information they can readily and superficially obtain from the target of their prejudicial thinking. Stereotypes are always something people can see directly, such as weight, skin color, and intelligence shown through behavior and many other characteristics. These sets of readily available information seem to be more important because there is one type of heuristics, availability heuristics that is present in the human mind to help them judge on frequency or probability (Tversky & Kahneman, 1973).

To understand heuristics, consider the two images below that we come across very often. How do you know which gender is which symbol? The existence of heuristics allows us to manage this world in a more simplified and helpful way. Society uses symbols that represent certain group of people to give certain information. No matter where we are, our brain is integrated with the understanding that “skirts” are something only women would wear—it is how, by using that heuristic, we know that the first symbol tells us that it is a women’s place, or belongs to women, or can only be used by women—depending on where we see the symbol.

Heuristics are tools to help people make a cognitive decision on something such as deciding who someone is, if he or she is a righteous person, or what leads to a particular event, or how a certain event happens. Availability heuristics is the tool used to make a judgment when it comes to the frequency of probability that something occurs to that particular target. For example, one may judge the traits of people in community A, after seeing the behavior of a few members of community A. Availability heuristics help people simplify judgment to the most simplified information they can get in mind, and that information can come from various sources, such as a personal experience like the one in the Little Albert case, and others like the statistics given in the study described above.

Availability heuristics can be useful in some situations, such as estimating voting behavior in an election period, or predicting divorce cases for a particular year, but sometimes it has a negative consequence. Prejudice partly comes from the use of availability heuristics and blind “compliance” to such judgment. In this case, availability heuristics are a form of excess of the use of limited information offered to the human mind prior to judgment because blind belief to such heuristics can lead them to generalize. This is an extreme way of thinking that would go against the very nature of moderation itself.

Labeling and availability heuristics

Availability heuristics can be so powerful that sometimes people do not even realize that it is affecting their way of thinking. This is due to the excess use of labeling to simplify and categorize objects. Labeling affects human judgment and interpretation toward something or someone (Jussim, Nelson, Manis, & Soffin, 1995). Labeling is one of the sources of availability heuristics because labeling comes from the traits of physical attributes that people see from the individuals that they label. For example, individuals are labeled as doctors after they are seen wearing a white coat with a stethoscope around their neck, or a man is labeled as dangerous when walking in the dark with a hooded jumper on. Once labeling happens, individuals who conform to the traits and physical attributes that resemble the labels are stereotyped and these stereotypes become the readily available information to serve as a tool to form availability heuristics.

Labeling is not all inaccurate, but the negative consequence of labeling happens because people are too focused on the external traits of a target of the label. People seem to readily judge that a person in a white coat is a doctor, or that a man who has a hood on while walking in the dark is dangerous. These are all the external qualities of the person in a white coat and the man with a hood that people focus on to make a judgment, and eventually they have prejudicial thinking against these targets.

When discussing the topic of faith, Benjamin Franklin said, “Faith is confirmed by the heart, confessed by the tongue, and acted upon by the body.” This definition of faith is in parallel with the definition given by various religions. It emphasizes the importance of both external (confessing and acting upon) and internal aspects (believing) of spirituality. One cannot have one aspect without the other. Moderation involves professing your faith internally, such as believing and keeping your motivation, and externally, such as taking care of your appearance in line with your faith, and being concerned about what you say and do. This means that you do not just focus on either one aspect alone, but prove your stand by maintaining your faith, internally and externally.

In relation to prejudice, labeling happens due to focusing more on the external aspects of traits, like the group members’ appearance, behavior, and even intelligence (as it can be seen from their way of thinking and speaking). But we often neglect to remember that there are interior aspects of those individuals—the aspects that are dismissed from the factors of being labeled. These interior aspects can be different across individuals, thus labels alone could not make an entirely accurate judgment on an individual.

Conceptual frameworks of the relationship between moderation and prejudice

As discussed, prejudice comes from many factors that are not in line with the concept of moderation and this can be prevented by allowing the right way of thinking to be our habit. Moderation is a middle pathway to prevent prejudice. One way to do so is by understanding that while the outside of a person can tell something about him or her, the inside parts can be important too. Figure 1 illustrates the conceptual framework on how moderation can address prejudicial thinking.

Figure 1 shows a continuum of the way of thinking with moderation in the middle and “indifference” and “prejudicial thinking” on each extreme end. Prejudicial thinking, in one extreme, focuses only on the external aspects of a group of people, by which the aspects are used to make a judgment if the group is “good” or “bad.” These judgments are then used to make a generalization. On the other hand, indifference is shown when people have a neutral attitude; too much of it that they do not care about what is happening around them.

Moderation is located in the middle. It is neither prejudicial nor indifferent. People with a moderate way of thinking consider both the external and internal qualities of individuals to make a fair judgment. Each judgment is different across individuals because he or she knows that even if an individual belongs to a certain group, that individual does not have to be the same as the other members of that group. People with a moderate way of thinking know that tolerance needs to be exercised whenever needed, without any unfairness to any individuals who belong to a certain group of people.

Conclusion and a suggestion

When making a judgment or decision on a target’s attribution, it is important to examine the extent to which heuristics or the person’s dependence on readily available information—also known as availability heuristics—affects their judgment. Heuristics can be useful to help people organize, manage, and simplify their thoughts, but it should be supervised so that it is only used in moderate levels. Whenever one feels the need to make a quick judgment, he or she should break it by “educating” the self. Educating the self in its simplest form can be to ask, “What if I am judged that way? Would I like it?” By educating yourself, you make a psychological and mental reminder that to quickly judge means to unfairly treat that individual, which is something you would not want happen to you.

Another way to hinder the potential formation of prejudice is to empathize. By putting yourself in the target’s own shoes, you will be able to see how unfair stereotypes can be to a particular individual. Self-serving bias is a social cognitive error in which you are more likely to view positive events as a result of your own doing and negative events as the consequence of an external factor (Miller & Ross, 1975). This is viewed by psychologists as an error in thinking about other people, but interestingly, this can actually help in reducing prejudice. Prejudice can occur because you fail to attribute a person’s behavior or trait fairly, because he or she is simply another person you cannot relate to. Therefore, by empathizing with a person, you would more likely start to view that behavior through your own lens. By doing that, “self-serving bias” can begin and that is equipped with the ability to also consider your own internal attributes. Therefore, there will be a balance between focusing on internal aspects because it is you, and focusing on external aspects, because it is others.

Moderation is indeed a virtue that can help us develop and grow as a well-adjusting human being. By employing moderation in every aspect of our lives, we can see that moderation can address almost any issue, including prejudice. Moderation is the middle and the most proper pathway of thinking.

Taufik Mohammad, PhD, is a senior lecturer in Universiti Sains Malaysia.


  • Aboud, F. E. 1976. The effect of stereotype generalization on information seeking. Canadian Journal of Behavioral Science , 8, 178-188.
  • Brown, R. 2010. Prejudice: Its social psychology. Oxford: John Wiley & Sons Ltd.
  • Jussim, L., Nelson, T. E., Manis, M., & Soffin, S. 1995. Prejudice, stereotypes, and labeling effects: Sources of bias in person perception. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 68, 228-246.
  • Miller, D. T., & Ross, M. 1975. Self-serving biases in the attribution of causality: Fact or fiction? Psychological Bulletin, 82, 213-225.
  • Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. 1973. Availability: A heuristic for judging frequency and probability. Cognitive Psychology, 4, 207-232.
  • Watson, J. B., & Rayner, R. 1920. Conditioned emotional reactions. Journal