Thoughts On Bias
The other day, someone asked me about a coppery red, spotty evergreen shrub, was there something wrong with it? I made a face and said “No, it’s a Photinia that doesn’t like the maritime Northwest, they color up and get those spots every winter up here. I HATE those things!” She said the plant looked weird, that color jut looked wrong in the spring when everything else is fresh looking. I agreed; I’ve always thought that if Photinia x fraserii turned those bronzy colors in autumn, I’d probably love it. But I was also interested to note that we were both revealing our biases about what looked “normal” and what looked “weird.” Bias is often hidden and can work both for and against: For years, I disliked variegated plants because they looked diseased to my eyes (and indeed, some of them are). On the other hand, I instantly adore any flower with that classic anemone form, from hellebores and pasque flowers to clematis and aconites.
Recently we’ve all had many opportunities to notice how biased our culture can be about people as well as plants, whether it’s expressed as racism or instant unconscious acceptance of people who look like us. Many researchers have pointed out that it’s far easier to recognize other people’s biases than our own. Lately I’ve been studying bias as a topic for the Inclusion Study Group of the Senior Community Center. Our next conversation will be about bias, and here’s what I’ve learned: Everyone is biased.
Yup. Here’s How It Works
Implicit Biases are biases taught directly and/or indirectly through our lifetimes through parents, teachers, neighbors, friends, advertising, media, etc. The term “implicit bias” explains how our attitudes towards people or stereotypes we associate with them were formed without our conscious knowledge. Bias ‘Blind Spots’ are places where we can see bias operating in others but can’t see it in ourselves and our own worldview. To sum it up, “Everyone thinks they are less biased than their peers.” This article on blind spots made me chuckle, then made me think again.
Want to explore your bias? Check out these interactive tests:
The first test I took reveals how we feel about old people and younger people. The results suggested that I am strongly biased towards young people. I didn’t think so, but now that it’s been called out, I’m noticing that I do feel especially friendly when I see young people out and about. I asked my daughter what she thought and she said that, in her experience, I have always had special warmth for young people, more than most of her friends’ moms. Huh. Who knew indeed?
The second test indicated that I have a slight preference for dark skinned people over light skinned people, and the third, that I have a moderate preference for gay people over straight people. Again, I’m not so sure about that, but it’s certainly possible. Though I’ve been friends with gay and queer and BIPOC people since my highschool days, I’ve definitely done a lot more stretching since my daughter came out as transgender. The more I learn about how difficult life can be for anyone who is not straight and white, the more I am able to empathize and the more I want to help.
Theologian Brian McLaren believes that confirmation bias is the most powerful, and works like this: “We all have filters, [such as] What do I already believe? Does this new idea or piece of information confirm what I already think? Does it fit in the frame I’ve already constructed? If so, I can accept it. If not, in all likelihood, I’m simply going to reject it as unreasonable and unbelievable, even though doing so is, well, unreasonable. I do this, not to be ignorant, but to be efficient. My brain (without my conscious awareness, and certainly without my permission) makes incredibly quick decisions as it evaluates incoming information or ideas. Ideas that fit in are easy and convenient to accept, and they give me pleasure because they confirm what I already think.
But ideas that don’t fit easily will require me to think, and think twice, and maybe even rethink some of my long-held assumptions. That kind of thinking is hard work. It requires a lot of time and energy. My brain has a lot going on, so it interprets hard work like this as pain…. Wanting to save me from that extra reframing work, my brain presses a “reject” or “delete” button when a new idea presents itself. “I’ll stick with my current frame, thank you very much,” it says. And it gives me a little jolt of pleasure to reward me for my efficiency.”
We Are Wired Like This
Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis says confirmation bias works like this: “We are all wired by what we’ve experienced to be in search of a story with an ending . . . that feels like it has a completion. And the stories that we gravitate to are the ones that make sense to us, stories that fit, stories that feel like they have continuity, connection to the past, where we’ve been. . . . Those stories that we will follow are the ones that feel true, feel like they have continuity to our past and that resonate with the trajectory of our lives. So, we’re looking for the story that doesn’t necessarily change our minds; we’re actually looking for the story that confirms what’s in our minds.”
As far as interactions with people, I’m definitely open to learning more about my own hidden assumptions and leanings. The deeper I dig, the less I feel fearful of what I might find out. After all, if we don’t look, we’ll never know (though I suppose we can always ask our friends…). As far as my interactions with plants, I’m pretty happy with my bias towards the simple, beautiful form of an anemone, or a buttercup, or a single rose. For one thing, bees and other pollinators love that form as well. But I don’t really need a “good” or logical reason, I love them and that’s reason enough. In fact, I’m off to the nursery now!