Philosophy TuesdayApril 14, 2015
This is a philosophical statement. It is intended to spark thinking and examining.
Hi there. How are you doing? I’d like to have a talk about our biases. I know, it’s uncomfortable… in fact, I’m not entirely comfortable writing this post. Because in many ways we walk around mostly thinking we don’t really have many biases. That we’re operating in a free and clear manner. That our thoughts and opinions and decisions are all based on rational information that we’ve evaluated. That only ignorant people have biases.
But that’s not accurate. And it’s important that we stand in the discomfort and confront our biases.
And, by the way, when I say we, and our, I mean me, writing this post, and when I say we I also mean you, the you that is in your underwear right now reading this. Not the you that means only the other people around you, or that one guy you know, or the “yeah, I know what you mean, some people are just so biased it’s crazy!” others. No, you, me, each of us.
Because, quite simply, if you are human, you have biases. We are all biased.
And these biases have an impact on our lives and, more importantly, the lives of those around us.
We don’t often think of ourselves as biased, or see our own biases, because they’re usually way more subtle than we’d expect. We expect biases to be big, loud, overt, playing large, with dramatic acts of violence, hatred, or discrimination: cross burnings, separate drinking fountains, failure to promote, a beating for walking down the street holding hands, vitriolic tirades. Those are “biased” people, clearly, and that’s what bias looks like. That’s what we expect.
And while those are indeed evidences of some very strong biases, they’re not the only ways in which we are biased. We are biased in thousands of small and big ways, and they are indeed mostly hidden from our view, operating incognito, influencing and guiding us in a myriad of ways.
It’s important to note here that a bias isn’t automatically a “bad” thing. It isn’t necessarily a “good” thing either. It is just one of the many ways our brains are designed to efficiently process incoming information, leaving more energy and more brainpower for other things. It’s all part of that system that lets us drive to work in the morning without really thinking about it (and often those times where we get to work and wonder “How did I even get here? I don’t remember driving…”).
It is a thing, however, that has impact in our thoughts, our feelings, our opinions, our gut feels, and our actions. Our brains are wonderful pattern making machines. They absorb stimuli and messages from the world around us, and they form views of the world that define our reality and our experience of the world.* Sometimes – often – our brain will create views where we didn’t consciously or deliberately choose what the view would be. It was inadvertently created from the stimuli and messages and information we see/saw around us. And then we are biased towards that view, and thus it becomes a bias. (Shankar Vedantam’s “The Hidden Brain” and Mahzarin Banaji’s “Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People” provide good primers on this topic. (Also see posts about them here and here.))
It is these hidden biases that are the ones that trip us up, because we don’t even know they’re there. They’re the ones that have us act in ways that, if we were to actually see it or think about it, we may even be shocked, because they stand at odds with whom we think we are and who say we are. And that is what I’m inviting here, to unconceal our biases and to be shocked by them. To look for them, to find them, and to take ownership of them. To take the hidden and make it exposed.
Because only by realizing we have bias can we alter and free ourselves from it.
Only by realizing we have been biased can we change our bias and choose whom we want to be, and create that which we want for ourselves, for the world, and for others.
*This is an awfully abstract way to write about this, because, of course, in the midst of it we don’t experience it as a view, or our personal reality. It IS reality, it IS the world, it IS what’s happening, it IS true. How we experience the world is REAL and IMMEDIATE. It’s not a concept, or a view, it just IS. Being able to pull back for a moment and get that our views are views is what lets us examine and, ultimately, interrupt our biases, writing in new ones. So, rather than having a bias that says “all X people are inferior”, we can write a bias that says “humanity and nature are beautiful and all are capable of greatness.” That’s a much more empowering bias to have.