Problems Can’t Be Solved At This Level of Thinking

Andrew Shepherd
13 min readDec 12, 2020


It is a feature of the human mind to turn the detail-rich world around us, the things and people we interact with, into concepts, categorizing, labeling, stereotyping. It is greatly alleviating to the brain’s costly glucose-burning processor to stop looking at all the details that make up a situation or a person and just stick them into a box and put a label on it. Then all we have to do is see that label. Even though it is inherently inaccurate, we do this all the time to get through life. It is easier to jump into action when you have simple concepts before you. Our mind curiously seeks out accuracy, but the body budget sets an emotional time limit for analysis, and once the time is up, we snap to judgment, throwing everything in a box. If we did not do this we would never make any decisions at all.

Without these labels, also called concepts, we wouldn’t be able to build a coherent thought, let alone construct a sentence. Every word we use is a label, a concept, a box around a collection of ideas and perceptions. As we grow up, we put boxes inside of boxes inside of boxes. Stop boxing for a minute and break down these labels that we use to define the world — open the box — and we find greater and greater complexity within that we ignored or even erased from memory in order to make the label fit.

As children we grow up with a small box of crayons and think there are only 4 or 5 colors. As we grow older, we break blue down into light blue and dark blue, then baby blue and navy. We start to find the blend in categories of purple, magenta, aqua and turquoise. Before we give up crayons we are at a box of 212 different colors and understand it is a spectrum of random labels we’ve used to conceptualize the world around us. That is what we do by our very nature, and it is unavoidable.

We are not racist or sexist because we choose to be. Stereotyping is the fundamental activity of our minds. It is built into us to prejudge others as an effective strategy for our survival. We see a foreign object, we crouch defensively, we examine it, we form judgments about it and label it in our minds. The next time we come across a similar object, we will assume it is like the last one and not waste time examining it all over again. We do the same with people.

A foreigner at first causes us inherent distrust and curiosity — only after examination do we decide if he is an enemy or a friend, and how to stack him in the pecking order. It takes a lot of time and experience with someone to get us to reluctantly spend more glucose on unboxing our concept of him, re-examining him, and relabeling him with greater nuance, seeing him as multi-dimensional, as part of a spectrum on many different axes. We have concepts for our best friends too, but they are rich and dynamic, loaded with memories and qualities that are much more than a stereotype.

Our culture hands us pre-conceived concepts that we use to build our paradigms. Religion is a cultural scaffolding that hands us common concepts and beliefs that help us operate collectively like a superorganism. Sharing a language, a moral code, a cosmology, all help people work together better. For example, depending on your culture, “slurping” is polite or rude, “doing whatever it takes to win” is shameful or revered, and “being deceptive” is clever or evil. These cultural concepts handed to us create our tribal identity, and if we adhere to them, we are respected and society functions smoothly. If we question them, we are shunned.

But from time to time, a cultural concept is just plain unhealthy for everyone in society and must be challenged no matter what the costs. Slavery in America was such a concept and a war was fought to eradicate it. But while we eventually universally labeled that concept “wrong,” we didn’t clean up the underlying component ideas that had been used to reinforce it — ideas that white people are smarter than black people, more evolved, superior somehow. These ideas were originally thought up by pseudo-scientists and armchair philosophers to justify the act of enslaving other human beings. People in southern Europe who had been conquered by the Moore empire during the dark ages knew full well that darker-skinned people weren’t inferior, and they did not condone the African slave trade. These ideas were never true, and if you just look at them through a biological lens, you realize quite quickly that they can’t be true. Brilliant black people, and people of every gradation of skin color and race on the spectrum, have made phenomenal contributions to the world that rival the greatest white thinkers in history. While ancestry can determine a lot about our individual gifts, every race delivers exceptionally gifted people into the world, and every race has evolved over the same amount of time to develop its unique strengths.

Sexism is rooted in the idea that women are not as smart, not as strong, not as stable as men, and this concept has been sold to mankind in many societies over thousands of years to make women subservient, strip them from roles of power, and frequently turn them into eternal children. While there are distinct differences between men and women biologically, like average height, weave of muscle fiber, hormone distribution, menstrual cycle, carrying sperm vs carrying eggs (and occasionally the subsequent baby), their brains still have the same proportions to their bodies and score similarly on IQ tests. Some tests show that women score higher than men on average. The variability hypothesis states that men vary more than women, including in the realm of IQ. On the bell curve, most women are smarter than most men on average, while at the extremes of intelligence and stupidity, men outnumber women.

Variability Hypothesis

If you look past the male-centric history books to the more complete accounts, you will find many women who have shown that they are roughly as smart and talented as the greatest men in history, but they were just left out. A cultural scaffolding that equates men with power and leadership and women with support and nurturance pushes us all into boxes that may not fit our unique talents. Seeing that women outnumber men in moderate intelligence, it might make sense to have more female leaders in management than males. While women tend to be more drawn to work that involves diffuse attention (multi-tasking, management, i.e. nursing, teaching) and men tend to be more drawn to laser focus jobs (engineering, mining, law), the cultural reasons for this may dwarf any underlying biological factors in those differences. Women may be on average better than men at certain things and men may be better on average than women at certain things, but there are plenty of outliers on both sides, so creating a society with the freedom of both sexes to choose what they want to do allows for the greatest talent to find its niche and the whole society benefits.

Our culture has been actively stifling the contributions of women for millennia. But these cultural concepts are difficult to fight when they are built into your paradigm. We are conditioned to see men as leaders and women as supporters, to see men as smarter, stronger, etc. We respect men with passion while women often come off as “bitchy” doing exactly the same things. And this isn’t a battle between men and women. Women are just as culturally conditioned as men. Women shame other women for stepping out of line more than men do. The culture normalizes gender expectations and reinforces them within the minds of those they disadvantage. Women are often attracted to men who take charge while many men prefer demur women. This subconscious conditioning largely determines our desires in life, and we spread our patterns to the next generation.

Tearing down the old cultural assumptions about gender roles in society is a painful and costly job that western cultures are struggling with. Throwing out the old cultural scaffolding and building a new one creates a lot of fear and anxiety in society, which leads people to be defensive and ultimately more conservative, which is why we take two steps forward and one step back with these seismic shifts.

White supremacy is a false concept, but eradicating it has proven difficult, to say the least. With systemic racism oppressing black Americans as a group for centuries, stereotypes are ingrained in the black subculture as well as the dominant white subculture. Shaking a stereotype can’t just be done by saying it is false. People have to be shown that it is false, have a paradigm shift in which all the adjacent supporting ideas holding that one in place are dug up as well and a new constellation of ideas takes root in its place. When the system still reinforces the stereotypes, when black Americans are disproportionately poor and therefore disproportionately involved in crime, uneducated, and self-segregation prevents people from taking a closer look at “the other,” very little changes. Some have argued that all the racists have to die so that the next generation of less racist youth we are raising now will replace them. But human culture passes values on from one generation to another with minimal data loss. And many generations later we are still dealing with this.

It is foolish to work against our psychological nature on these wicked problems, and yet much of the liberal war on racism and sexism of the last 50 years has done just that. Shaming people for being racist does not remove their racism — it emboldens the idea within them and makes it a focal point for their identity. People don’t learn when they are feeling attacked — their fight or flight mechanism kicks in and they start gaming their defense and your downfall, instinctively. Social justice warriors battling for the right ideas mean well but their approach often turns would-be allies into converts for the opposition movements of white nationalism and anti-feminists. Cancel culture is one of the most egregious mistakes of the left in combating sexism and racism in America as it proves to already fearful human brains that “the threat of these progressive ideas on my life is real.” White men who are against sexism and racism think, “How quickly could I be called out for an innocent mistake of words based on the culture I grew up with, and suddenly I’m fired and unemployable? This madness needs to stop!”

Shaming people for being racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, doesn’t solve the problem — like a thorn, scratching at it pushes it in deeper. These tendencies are all rooted in our inherent repulsion from the unfamiliar, built-in xenophobia if you will, framed by our cultural construct. The cultural construct makes us feel safe, so attacking it will take away the safety necessary to think about new ideas, to question the old, to confront the deeper darker realities of our complicity in a system that harms large numbers of our fellow citizens and prevents their healthy contribution to society. Our egos aren’t designed to take on that much personal guilt or shame without reacting.

When a black person explains to a white person how racist their culture is, they often have a defensive reaction, trying to deny the worldview being presented. Some educators have labeled this reaction of white people “white fragility.” But there’s nothing inherently white about it. This is a completely normal human reaction to being told your culture isn’t what you think it is, it is much darker and more unfair and brutal than you ever knew, and you are complicit in the evil it perpetrates on others — essentially, your in-group is not good and neither are you.

In psychology, we have something called identity-protective cognition (popularly referred to as “the ego”). It defends us from physical threats and it defends us from threats to our status. Like a PR manager, it is always trying to advance our status in society which should get us better access to power, resources, and mating opportunities. It is responsible for many cognitive biases including the fundamental attribution error, which shows this need to always try to see yourself as the best, and the ultimate attribution error, which shows the impulse to always try to see your in-group as the best. Being told you are the bad guy in the story is not acceptable in a normal human brain, and such an idea will be nearly uniformly rejected. That’s just healthy human psychology.

To deliver an idea that shakes someone’s paradigm, you have to make sure to get them on your side first so they are not the bad guy. Make them the good guy in this story, the would-be hero who only has to go on a heroic journey to discover the plight of the other side of society in order to commit to changing it. Such an approach may seem overly generous to people who have been comfortably ignoring the suffering of others for a lifetime, but what reaction are you looking for? Do you want more of the culture war we’ve been brewing, or do you actually want progress?

The irony of progressives forcing their ideas down others’ throats is that the ideas they are trying to sell are that of awareness and compassion, empathy and understanding. They are trying to undo a culture of domination by dominating people with their ideas of non-domination. Even if the ends justify the means, which they don’t, you still have to contend with human nature which will resist your ideas out of pure instinct and form a resistance movement against you. And we’ve seen that culminate in the Trump era, with Boogaloo Boys, Proud Boys, alt-right punditry and activism, the Red Pill movement, and conspiracy theorist groups like QAnon.

Problems can’t be solved at the same level of thinking that created them. Going to a lower level of thinking is even worse. Fighting others’ hard-wired tribalism with our hard-wired tribalism, reacting to their reactivity, dominating their domination, no matter how enlightened the ideas we are fighting for, is just a recipe for war. We have to rise to a higher level of psychological awareness or nothing will change.

Progress can only be made when the majority of people are convinced that it is safe and better than what we had before. People tend to become more conservative and risk-averse by nature when they are scared, so attacking people with progressive ideas, threatening them if they don’t accept them, will tend to yield the opposite reaction — alt-right movements, white supremacists, and anti-feminists. If your nervous system is triggered when trying to teach people about racism or sexism, they will likely sense it and you will trigger their defenses and they will not learn from you, no matter how clever you are. Only by disengaging the identity-protective cognition at the tribal brain level can we hope to have a transformative connection with someone.

Daryl Davis, a black Jazz musician, went on a mission of interviewing KKK members to understand how they could hate him when they don’t even know him. By having respectful conversations with these men, he built a rapport that softened their defenses against him and eventually built a bond of friendship. As that basic human bond built inside them, it undermined their racist beliefs, challenged the labels they had for him, and eventually they had to confront the boxes they had used to label him and others like him. Their concepts broke down, they changed their minds, and they gave him their robes when they left the Klan. Over the years Davis has retired dozens of KKK hoods by simply having respectful conversations. He never would have changed anybody if he just called them wrong and threatened them for their beliefs. Instead, he was curious about them and why they believed what they did. He found respect for their culture, even the aspects of the Klan that are very human and noble, intricate and beautiful like an old religion. He could see it as a whole, in its darkness and its light, even while disagreeing with it.

To get conversations like this to happen, we have to calm everybody down. Then we have to avoid triggering people again. Language matters. Calling our system “the patriarchy,” calling a natural human reaction “white fragility,” referring to behavior as “toxic masculinity,” calling people “sexists” or “racists,” all work to maintain the status quo of this culture war between white and black, men and women, conservative and liberal. We have to find non-binary language that doesn’t trigger our tribal brains to frame things in black and white, us vs. them, or make anyone wrong or evil, but instead frames us as working together against false concepts that are hurting us. Frame us as part of the same team working for the good of society. In the end, isn’t that the truth?

We have to frame the problem of systemic racism accurately as false ideas that have been embedded in our culture like thorns in our skin. We need to calmly educate people on what they are and show them how the tweezers work to remove them. It will be painful digging under the surface to get them out, painful for each individual who has been imprinted with these false notions since childhood, but it will ultimately be worth it to liberate not only others but ourselves from the oppression produced by an unhealthy culture.

From ourselves to others, to inner groups to outer groups, to countries, to the world, we have to nurse this approach to change and progress. Some people might disagree with the ideas we are pushing. That’s when it’s time to open our concept box and see what is inside. Through digging under the surface of our disagreements we find even greater clarity than we had before, and sometimes we find gratitude and respect for the people with different perspectives who are simply championing the other side of the same coin.



Andrew Shepherd

Filmmaker, writer, edutainer. Graduated from USC film school, founding member of Mind-University and President of Converging Perspectives.