Life’s matters: The grip of biases


Getting in Touch with Our Biases

We humans seem to be hard-wired to sort, sift, and compartmentalize, not just the experiences of our lives, but also the people with whom we interact or hear about through the media and other sources. We sort ourselves into neighborhoods, political and religious affiliations, where we shop, even the kind of car we drive. We make many decisions and choices with little or no conscious thought. Some practices are so automatic that we cannot think of making a different decision or choice.

When we think of the term bias, we may feel a bit uncomfortable. I entered “define bias,” online and received the following: “prejudice in favor of or against one thing, person, or group compared with another, usually in a way considered to be unfair.” The term often arises out of discussions of racism and social injustice, topics that rank right up there with religion and politics in terms of volatility.

Verna Myers, in her TED Talk, “How to Overcome Our Biases?: Walk boldly toward them,” stated, “Biases are the stories we make up about other people before we know who they are.”

We think other people have biases, but not us. Our discomfort increases when we are prompted to look at our biases. Many of us consider ourselves compassionate, open-minded, open-hearted people. We take issue with the notion that we may not be as accepting and inclusive-minded as we think. We are all subject to biases—opinions and beliefs born out of our experiences and exposure to the mores of the culture in which we live.

Often, biases bring pain to other people in the pervasive and insidious forms of hatred, bigotry, racism, ageism, sexism, discrimination, and injustice that haunt many well-intentioned people. I have heard statements like, “I don’t use those words myself—I’m just telling you what someone else said.”

Some of our biases are conscious—that is, we are well aware of them. We may be open and vocal about our stance on issues important to us. We may go so far as qualifying our opinions—“I have some black friends, but I don’t think they should marry outside their race; it’s too hard for the children.” Often, a belief is strong, and we fight to preserve the bias. These explicit biases are known to us and those around us.

Enter implicit bias, which stems from opinions and beliefs that exist just below the surface of our consciousness. We may act in ways that contradict our values and what we profess. For example, someone may openly advocate for homeless people but think twice about having a conversation or a meal with a homeless person. Our biases drive our myriad daily decisions without conscious effort on our part. We are biased in our best interest and the interest of those we love. Where we choose to live. With whom we choose to affiliate. Where we choose to place our religious and political loyalties.

Check Yourself

Verna Myers and several additional experts highly suggest self-study by taking the Implicit Association Test (IAT), a valuable online tool for getting a glimpse into one’s hidden biases. In 1995 Mahzarin Banaji (Harvard University), Anthony Greenwald (University of Washington), and Brian Nosek (University of Virginia) developed the IAT to help people ferret out beliefs and attitudes aligned with their implicit biases. The free test is divided into categories—Black/White, Young/Old, Fat/Thin, Female/Male, and several more, and take about ten minutes each to complete. Reports indicate that people are often surprised by their test results.

How do we combat our biases?

Some researchers say it is impossible to defeat our biases. Others, like Mahzarin Banaji, caution that eradicating biases is a challenge but awareness affords opportunities to make informed decisions and to restructure our thinking and behavior. We absorb biases unconsciously through our exposure to the bombardment of messages from our culture, which makes them difficult to dislodge.

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