People are Not Mushrooms

“If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.”

(Maya Angelou)


I’ve been telling you all for some time that everything in us seeks patterns and familiarity. Sometimes we get so used to certain patterns (habits) that they are hard to break. Cutting a new neural path that outshine the old, deeply worn one takes time, and it can be exhausting. And, it’s the only way we change. 

Mushrooms and blue eyes

This pattern-seeking thing sometimes keeps us alive. Imagine yourself in the wilderness. “I eat this mushroom and I don't die from hunger. So I eat this mushroom. I eat this mushroom I eat this mushroom I eat this mushroom; This mushroom is good. That mushroom might kill me. I don’t eat that mushroom.” Pattern recognition helps us remember which mushroom will keep us alive and which might kill us. 

Sounds pretty useful, doesn’t it? The problem is that we aren’t so good with nuances, especially when the risk seems high. 

For example, I once worked in a residential program where people either came as a step-down from psychiatric inpatient hospitalization or to get stable enough to avoid a hospital admission. We had one resident who refused to talk to or work with the on-call therapist because that therapist had blue eyes. The woman, (who, for the record, was pretty psychotic at the time,) had been severely harmed by someone with blue eyes. Blue eyes were a poison mushroom in her perception. Fortunately mine are green, so I became the safe mushroom. 


That process is called “generalization.” When we have had a negative experience, we can automatically pick out things about whatever it was that we experienced negatively and “generalize” those qualities to avoid threat. But sometimes we go too far. 

When I was 12-years-old, I was on a bicycle on the highway at the end of the street where I lived when a Good Humor ice cream truck whipped around the corner at more than 70-miles per hour and hit me. I could have generalized that trauma to all ice cream trucks and spent the rest of my childhood deprived of the joy of running to get money when an ice cream truck sounded in the neighborhood, but really? Why make that big of a sacrifice? 

I didn’t hold the accident against all ice cream trucks. Because, well... ice cream! I was motivated not to generalize. At least not to ice cream trucks. I still have some work to do on bicycles. 

But with people

It’s somewhat important to notice patterns with people too. If you’re standing on a Metro platform and a woman is standing there pointing a gun, a pattern that clicks in to tell you, “Hey, a person pointing a gun in a public place is dangerous,” is quite useful. Thanks brain! However, if that incident turns traumatic and the gun wielder happens to be a woman of color, your simplistic brain might decide instead that all women of color are potentially dangerous. You see the problem?

When we over-assign patterns with our fellow humans, we assume that the person in front of us will fit a certain pattern: Is this person a “good mushroom” or a “bad mushroom”? There are some serious flaws in this thinking. First of all, hopefully, we are not looking to eat them. Secondly, the relative danger or safety of this person or that is not necessarily apparent based on over-simplified assumptions. 

If you bumped into the anti-blue eyes woman I mentioned above on the street, you would likely think that she was just a kindly older woman on her way to a Senior Center. However, if she were having a psychotic episode you probably would not know it… unless you literally bumped into her body, prompting her to cut you with the shiv she carries in her pocket for just such an occasion.

Implicit bias

There has been a lot of very important talk about “implicit bias” as of late. That’s all about stereotyping. We assign threat to people who fit in one category and assign favor to those in another. It’s usually an unconscious process designed to keep us eating the good mushrooms and avoiding the toxic ones. It is deeply flawed and doesn’t even meet its objective. It will have us excluding and doing harm to some people with whom we might have created something wonderful, and also have us trusting people who are utterly unsafe. 

People are not mushrooms

Because these overgeneralizations are largely unconscious and do so much damage, I’m going to spend the next few weeks putting some of them into the light for examination. People are so much more interesting and consequential than mushrooms. Let’s take the next few weeks to look at ways that we can keep our mushroom assumptions and human assumptions separate in our minds.


Are there some stereotypes you’d like to explore in the coming weeks? Contact me here!