Classical Conditioning: Linking 'Blurred Lines', 'Islamaphobia' and 'Cosmo's Race Controversy'

17/06/2015 13:25 BST | Updated 14/06/2016 10:59 BST

For every well-intentioned soul who takes it upon themselves to point out any controversy in the media regarding sexism, racism or any other divisive prejudice, there always seems to be a group of people prepared to jump to the defence of the media and insist that the person or group is 'over reacting' or 'nit-picking' at unimportant things that don't actually have the far reaching effects and implications that these 'paranoid protestors' so passionately claim.

While this is sometimes the case, more often than not, there seems to be an overarching story that is rarely ever told...

Imagine the following scenario:

Like the average person, you grow up with access to a TV.

In most of the TV shows and films that are shown, they feature your average 'bad guy'.

You know... your Lord Voldermort, Darth Vader, Wicked Witch of the West and so forth. And naturally, these 'baddies' trigger feelings of loathe, fear and contempt whenever they make an appearance. (Unless you have a quirky little dark side, that is.)

Anyway, over the years a little pattern emerges... The baddy appears and these negative feelings are triggered, creating the standard emotional response that we all experience when watching a good film.

But then there's this additional feature that creeps in:

The majority of the baddies that you see all have a red handkerchief embellished in their left hand pocket.

Now let's fast forward a few years:

You're 41 years old - you've just gotten off a train and you're trawling along the platform toward the exit with a huge suitcase, a holdall and a rucksack. You start toward the lift, but after a few feet you catch sight of an 'out of order' sign, forcing you to head toward the stairs.

It's broad daylight, there are people around and you have no reason to feel afraid or under attack. You see a considerably well-dressed man standing at the top of the exit stairs. Then suddenly, you notice something unnerving about him. You can't quite identify what it is. But a sense of fear and deep unease swiftly kicks you in the stomach.

As you approach the bottom of the stairs he glances down at you and the mass of luggage in tow. He seems to be mentally weighing up the potential struggle on your hands and moves toward you to offer some help. Usually, you'd gratefully accept. But today, you hesitate. Something tells you to grab onto your bags and face the stair hike alone. You glance around nervously and mutter something about 'being able to manage', but thank him wearily as you struggle on up.

He backs up the stairs to resume his prior position, wondering why you were so short with him. Meanwhile, you reach the top of the stairs heaving a sigh of relief. One, because you made it to the top of the stairs, and two, because you probably just side stepped a potential bag thief.

You hurry along, looking back in hindsight at the perceived threat that you just managed to avoid.

You're not exactly sure why you felt threatened by him, but you assume that it must have been something to do with his attitude, the way he walked over, the way he seemed to be stood 'suspiciously waiting' for somebody to struggle up the stairs - or anything else that could be attributed to a dodgy fault of his own.

You continue along this train of thought, unaware that there is a much simpler explanation. That the reason you felt the way that you did, was because of a significant accessory that he happened to be wearing.

... A red handkerchief perched in his left hand pocket.

As mundane as it may sound, countless years of witnessing these bad guys wearing red handkerchiefs in their left pockets had conditioned you to fear anybody who followed suit. (No pun intended.) You didn't know it though, because it was something that had subtly developed over the years.

This, my friends, is a psychological theory known as Classical Conditioning, whereby you develop a specific reaction to one thing because of its association with something else.

The recognition of this phenomenon is the reason behind Robin Thicke's 'Blurred Lines' 2013 backlash. Why Muslims are so justifiably annoyed about being volunteered as the universal face of terrorism. And why people took the time to call out Cosmo for failing to consider the potentially negative portrayal and underepresentation of black women when putting together their article 21 Beauty Trends That Need to Die in 2015.

While these 'situations' are often brushed off as insignificant, their influences span much farther, wider and deeper than many of us realize, contributing to many of the social problems we currently face.

But this isn't about the blame game, guilt trips, or a scramble for the moral high ground.

It's simply about maintaining awareness and accountability, so that we can make our mark on the world in the various positions that we hold without leaving messy footprints behind, causing problems for those around us.

Equally, it's also about reflecting on how this conditioning personally effects us on a day to day basis so that we can actively 'choose to refuse' to become a part of the problem.

Understanding this type of psychological phenomena helps us to view every day issues such as sexism, racism and other prejudice through a new lens, simultaneously allowing us to approach the issue from an alternative standpoint.