Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

The Role of Cognition in Bias, Prejudice, and Violence

What is innate (affects) and what is learned (cognition).

Key points

  • Cognition includes learning, thinking, and self-awareness.
  • Cognitive processes are crucial in dealing with bias and prejudice.
  • Cognition can shape affects and language and help decrease bias and prejudice.

Affects refer to innate responses to stimuli. Cognition refers to learning, thinking, self-awareness. Using cognitive processes can lead to a deeper understanding of affects and enlarge our behavioral responses to them. When considering differences and “otherness,” both affects and cognition are involved.

How children will respond affectively will be influenced by their innate reactivity and perception and what they have been told and experienced. Will they respond with positive or negative affects—curiosity and interest, or fear and anger?

Affects and cognition have both assets and liabilities. Each can affect the other profoundly. Affects can influence cognition: For example, consider how interest (curiosity) can influence problem-solving and behavior in various circumstances. Cognition can impact affects: Recall Aristotle’s remark —

“Anybody can become angry, that is easy; but to be angry with the right person, and to the right degree, and at the right time, and for the right purpose, and in the right way, that is not within everybody’s power, that is not easy.”

Here Aristotle is separating the affect of anger from the cognitive processes. The affect is contained in “Anybody can become angry, that is easy.” In the rest of the quote, he is invoking the use of cognitive processes to deal with the anger—such as self-awareness, problem-solving, goals, and more.

Cognition can shape affects and language in order to minimize bias and prejudice and violence. Two of our most influential contributors to the understanding of humanity promote the importance of cognition: Charles Darwin noted that “Great is the power of steady misrepresentation; but the history of science shows that fortunately, this power does not long endure” (1859, 1923, p. 293). And Sigmund Freud wrote: “The voice of the intellect is a soft one, but it does not rest till it has gained a hearing. Finally, after a countless succession of rebuff, it succeeds…in the long run, nothing can withstand reason and experience” (1927, pp. 53, 54).


And yet, here we are, some 80 years from the Nazi propaganda, currently dealing with anti-vax theories in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the QAnon conspiracy, climate-change opponents, and significant bias, prejudice, and racism. People in positions of public policy, therapists, and interested individuals might do well to focus on and learn as much as possible about affects and cognition, their development, their functions, and how they interact—their usefulness as a checks-and-balance feedback system, one that allows for an enhancement of individual and group curiosity and diminution of fear.

Education appears essential to efforts to prevent the harm caused by bias, prejudice, and violence—and yet such education appears underemphasized and often misdirected.

First, there needs to be a greater understanding of the processes underlying bias and prejudice.

Second, the evolutionary, migratory, biological, and environmental forces that create differences in color, ethnicity, and facial features need far more understanding and visibility than they are getting. It is not enough to know that humans have different characteristics. One must also learn what underlies the differences and mixtures— i.e., what causes humans to have different skin color or body types, or facial features, or various attributes and liabilities. Adam Rutherford discusses these issues extensively in his book How to Argue with a Racist: What Our Genes Do (and Don’t) Say About Human Difference (2020): “Structural racism is everyday—and is rooted in the everyday. It is rooted in indifference to the lived experience of the recipients of racism” (p. 6).

Third, promoting critical thinking, creativity, scientific methodology, exposure to various topics and data, and so on are important at all levels. And we might benefit from enhancing interest and enjoyment—curiosity and empathy—at every turn, from early development onward.


Darwin C (1859). On the Origin of Species by Mean of Natural Selection: Two Volumes in One. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1923.

Freud S (1927). The Future of an Illusion. SE 21: 5-56. London: The Hogarth Press.

Rutherford A (2020). How to Argue with a Racist: What Our Genes Do (and Don’t) Say About Human Difference. New York: The Experiment, LLC.

More from Paul C Holinger M.D.
More from Psychology Today
More from Paul C Holinger M.D.
More from Psychology Today