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How we learn is how we discriminate

Updated: Sep 26, 2023

How we learn is how we discriminate

An essential part of learning and decision-making is weighing the criteria to understand your utility. How we learn and how we decide are very similar and part of the same biological process. Throughout this article, learning and decision-making are regularly interchanged. They are like two sides of the same coin --- the decision is the outcome of a learning process. We all use criteria, like "what is important to me" about a decision alternative. Yet, understanding your own utility is weirdly difficult. Utility is found at the intersection of your highly personalized and dynamic motivations known as 'self-interest.' Our individual self-interests, a mishmash of both selfish AND selfless motivations, are unique and may change over time. [i]

Identifying, defining, and weighing our decision criteria is a learning process. We are born with an amazing learning process. Humans can absorb millions of pieces of individual data and quickly sort, define, and weigh this huge bucket of data. It mostly happens in our subconscious. This ability is also protective. Our brains would become overwhelmed and effectively melt down if we did not have this natural weighing filtration process. Also, the curiosity the spurs us to learn has an evolutionary biology basis. Our ancient genetic wiring encourages learning as a means to protect us from predators and other existential challenges. Neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene said,

"Curiosity is the determination that pushes animals out of their comfort zones in order to acquire knowledge. In an uncertain world, the value of information is hígh and must ultimately be paid in Darwin's own currency: Survíval."

The superpower is our ability to attend to the important stuff and ignore the unnecessary stuff. But this superpower comes with a dark side byproduct. This superpower is the basis for social discrimination as well.

This means, your decision criteria are naturally challenged to be weighted accurately. A natural learning and decision-making process is pre-wired in our brains. These processes are based on evolution from long ago. Thus, our naturally occurring decisions or learning are more accurate when they more closely resemble the "fight or flight" decisions from long ago. The further the decision or learning strays from "fight or flight," the more likely bias can impact the accuracy of the learning or decision.


This article addresses our learning and decision-making process to show how this superpower can be used for good learning and bad discrimination. At the conclusion of the article, a resource is provided to help you better manage your superpower and reduce bias impacting the major decisions of your life!

About the author: Jeff Hulett is a career banker, data scientist, behavioral economist, and choice architect. Jeff has held banking and consulting leadership roles at Wells Fargo, Citibank, KPMG, and IBM. Today, Jeff is an executive with the Definitive Companies. He teaches personal finance at James Madison University and provides personal finance seminars. Check out his new book -- Making Choices, Making Money: Your Guide to Making Confident Financial Decisions -- at

Attend to what interests you

As an example, let's say you decide learning about architecture is important. So, when you look at the first picture in the learning framework's top left column, your brain will start naturally separating it into logical segments. In this case, those segments are trees, houses, and animals. This natural sorting process is your brain's superpower. If you could not do this, then an overwhelming amount of unweighted picture data would be swirling and unattached. Your brain would quickly get overwhelmed.

Because of your predisposition to architecture, your brain naturally overweights the housing segments and underweights the trees and animals. This ultimately provides weighted attention to your view of the picture's environment. Your attention emphasizes looking at the houses while downplaying the trees and animals. You can see this segmenting and weighing process in the left column.

Let's discuss why you are predisposed to learning about buildings in the first place. For this example, assume architecture makes you happy. It creates a mood. That mood is a signal - "Hey brain - weigh the picture of houses higher for my attention, it makes me happy." Thus, even your mood is part of the evolutionary-based genetic algorithms. Your mood is part of selectively weighing something higher or lower. But as we discuss next, your selective weighing is not always accurate.

Attend to your people

Many people are born into families with a Mom and a Dad. You may have siblings. Very often those families genetically look alike. It is more likely parent couples are of similar racial backgrounds. Racial backgrounds are the "how we look" to the outside world. The color of our skin may be white, black, brown, yellow, etc. The reason for this color has to do with the latitude on the earth where our ancestors happened to be born. This global location indicates the amount of skin coloring, known as melanin, needed to protect their skin from the sun at that latitude. Biological children are genetic averages between their parents, notwithstanding a few random genetic mutations and the self-organizational nature of our individual brains. [ii] Their children will also share those race-based skin-coloring backgrounds. Our desire to congregate in racially similar tribes is well known. Our tribalism is the naturally occurring function of our genes, natural selection, and the neurotransmitter oxytocin. [iii]

As an example, it is natural that your tribal tendencies will create the desire to hang out with people who look like you. People with whom you are most familiar. Your naturally occurring tribalism uses the same learning process as the architecture example.

So now, when you look at the picture in the learning framework's top right column, your brain will start naturally separating it into logical segments by visual color. This is also known as discrimination. In this case, those segments are people by color group. This natural sorting process is part of that same learning superpower from the architecture example.

Please note: Minority social tribes as compared to majority social tribes form these tribal predispositions in different ways and with potentially different outcomes. This is an interesting and important topic and is beyond the scope of this article.

Discrimination protection in our laws: There are other characteristics beyond skin color subject to tribalism. The U.S. government codifies a set of 'protected classes' found in laws promulgated after the Civil Rights Act of 1964. These laws expressly prohibited social discrimination in these protected classes. [iv] In this article, we use color as representative of other forms of social discrimination.

Because of your brain's predisposition to your family of origin or tribe, your brain naturally overweights the people who look like the in-tribe and underweights the other tribe members of different colors. This ultimately provides weighted attention to your view of a group of people. Your attention emphasizes in-tribe people while downplaying the other people. You can see this segmenting and weighing process in the right column.

The point is...

The point is that you really cannot help it. This is your brain's default setting. In real-time, you cannot change your brain's default setting as it always runs in your subconscious. It is the same genetic algorithm that kept us alive by quickly identifying danger way back in the caveman days. The degree to which our brain's natural weighting process impacts the accuracy of decisions is known as confirmation bias. Our ancient genetic algorithms found survival was enhanced when we "stuck to our tribe." Those same learning processes and ancient genetic algorithms are still playing today. Our brain seeks to confirm by overweighting previously accepted information - like people who look like me are "safe." It is the default.

An iPhone analogy: Think of your brain's genetic predisposition like the iOS on a smartphone. Then, consider a learning or decision you will make today like using one of your iPhone's apps. Just like our learnings or decisions are subject to our genetic-based wiring, the app is subject to the environmental rules set by the iOS.

The great news is that our brains are amazingly nimble. You can create habits that serve as a genetic default countermeasure. To be clear our always-on, ancient “fight or flight” genetic algorithms are important for our survival. However, the need for those survival instincts has declined in recent times as our laws and medical systems have dramatically reduced existential threats. Natural selection will ultimately help our brains evolve beyond fight-or-flight instincts as those instincts are no longer needed. But it takes time! In the meantime, the trick is knowing when to mute those survival instincts (hint: almost all of the time!) by applying a good habit countermeasure.

To be clear, the suggestion is NOT that instinct, intuition, or a "gut feeling" is bad. Our gut, as part of our decision process, is neither bad nor good. Our gut is part of our input to a decision. However, owing to our evolutionary biology, it is easy to misinterpret or misuse our gut. A good decision process will help use your gut feelings most effectively.

These countermeasure habits enable us to better consider diversity and many other challenging decisions. From the 2-columns of the learning framework example, these are the underweighted trees, animals, or people of a different color. Ironically, the same feature that is our learning superpower is the creator of undesirable social discrimination. We can certainly make great use of our learning capacity, create good habits, and adapt our moods. This is all in the service of overcoming our natural dark side tendency to discriminate.

Then, the question is, if we know:

  1. We are weirdly poor at properly weighing criteria to make decisions,

  2. This challenge is a feature of our natural learning process, and

  3. Good habits are aspirational but incredibly challenging to maintain.

Then, what do we do? The answer is provided in the next resource section.


Use tools that will help you overcome the challenge of properly weighing criteria for your big decisions.

Definitive Choice is an app decision solution to help you understand your self-interests and actions on almost all life decisions. It provides a straightforward user experience. The number-crunching occurs in the background by time-tested decision science algorithms. It uses a proprietary "Decision 6(tm)" approach that organizes the preference criteria (what is important to you?) and alternatives (what are the choices?) in a series of bite-size ranking decisions. Since it is on your smartphone, you can use it while you are curating data to support the decision. It is like having a decision expert in your pocket. The results dashboard provides a rank-ordered list of recommended "best choices," tailored to your preferences.

Also, Definitive Choice comes pre-loaded with many decision templates. You will want to customize your own preferences (aka criteria) and alternatives, but the preloaded templates provide a nice starting point.

Using decision process solutions enables DECISION A-C-T:

  • Accelerated: faster, less costly decisions. It enables a nimble decision environment.

  • Confidence-inspired: process causes people to be more confident in the decision, increasing buy-in, and decision up-take.

  • Transparency-enabled: reporting, documentation, and charts to help communicate the decision.


[iii] Hulett, Origins of our tribal nature, The Curiosity Vine, 2022

[iv] “Protected classes” are defined in the Fair Housing Act or "FHA". Protected classes include Race, Color, National Origin, Religion, Sex, Familial Status, and Disability. The Equal Employment Opportunity Act or "EEOA" has a similar set of protected classes.

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