Saturday, February 7, 2015

Developing Bias is What Brains Do


© Charles D. Hayes 

A primary function of the human brain is to record an accurate snapshot of reality so as to improve the odds that the rest of the organism will have an opportunity to reproduce. Our brains work 24/7 to keep us safe from danger and free from surprise and embarrassment. Although genetics research suggests our species may be continuing to evolve, we have the same physical hardware that we had when we were on the menu of large predators. Because surprise can spell danger, our brains are hyperaware, still making lightning-fast assumptions based on very little information.

These days most of us no longer have to worry that the snapping of a twig means we are about to be pounced upon by a hungry beast. But our brains still mimic paranoia in their need to nail reality quickly. A mistaken assumption about an approaching stranger or a new hire at our business can prove costly. The stranger might be a mugger and the new employee might be a thief.

In a nutshell, we all have biases about all sorts of subjects and circumstances, and it’s a good thing because we couldn’t live without them. We rely on having an enormous record of seemingly accurate snap-judgment assumptions archived beneath our consciousness and available instantaneously, convictions about every possible kind of cause and effect, especially about people: how they behave, who can be believed and trusted, who can’t and why. For our sentinel awareness, our observations seem to represent straight-up reality. In other words, that’s how it looks and how it seems, so that’s how it must be.

As we grow up, our brains pay careful attention to millions of things deemed significant but unworthy of being called into our conscious awareness. Just because we aren’t knowingly aware of everything going on around us, however, doesn’t for a minute mean that our gray matter is not focused on keeping meticulous records of anything and everything that might prove helpful in the future.

Bias can be positive or negative and as simple as if you see that, it means this. So, if we are raised in a culture where a demonstrable negative bias directed toward a minority is a common experience, if the bias expressed stigmatizes the minority as being lawbreakers or untrustworthy in general, the brain is keeping this as a deep-seated record for reference to avoid unsatisfactory encounters in the future.

If when we are children the adults in our presence bear a racial prejudice toward a minority, even if they try to hide it, we will read their body language. We will record the looks on their faces, their eye-rolling gestures, the tone of their remarks. We will internalize the imprint of a social bias when the adults think we aren’t paying attention to their tacitly shared assumptions about stereotypes.

Our brains strive persistently to read our peripheral social interactions, soaking up sentiment as effectively as dry sponges absorb water. Internalization of the culture we observe as children is confirmed by research studies in which young black children show a more positive attitude toward white dolls than black dolls. Their views have been ever so subtly formed by internalizing the prevalent bias of media and their social environment.              

Regardless of our conscious opinions about equality and justice, most of us will feel an intuitive tug toward our internalized record of life experience when confronted with the need to make a decision. If we’re interviewing applicants for employment, for example, or asked to approve of a person who wants to date our son, daughter, or other family member, our subconscious take on reality will likely weigh heavily in our decision making.

We are all masters of a form of rationalization referred to in academia as confirmation bias. If the family member’s potential date is of the wrong ethnicity or social class according to our internal database, but saying as much would be considered publically offensive, no problem. We can easily come up with ingenious alternative reasons to show why this person is still not suitable. Racial bias becomes especially suspect when we come down hard on a reason for disqualification with more aggressive emphasis than we would apply in similar situations with persons of our own ethnicity or social status.

Our unconscious emotional self is so formidable that psychologist Jonathan Haidt uses the metaphor of an elephant to capture its dominant nature. The rider on the elephant represents the relatively limited power of our conscious reasoning self in comparison. When in conversation or reading text, recall how quickly your elephant is apt to jump to conclusions that amount to instantaneous emotional validation before you’ve had a chance to fully digest the subject at hand. Our elephant never sleeps.       

Unfortunately we pay too much attention to formal education and too little to the experiential learning that shapes our worldview for life. If we are oblivious to the subtle nature of bias, then our elephant rules. Whatever we come up with as a rationale, regardless of how prejudicial our judgment might be, we will still perceive ourselves as being completely fair and impartial, even as our bias masquerading as intuition will cause us to offer cautious rationalizations that carefully conceal our deepest and most morally incorrect feelings.

Our justifications may very well result in our not hiring a minority applicant or not giving our approval for someone to date a person we’ve subconsciously stigmatized, while we still remain absolutely convinced of our total objectivity. There are mountains of irrefutable employment data showing statistical proof of an employment bias and of persistent racial profiling in law enforcement in America that very few people who manage these processes will admit is occurring.

It is impractical and counterproductive to ask people if they harbor a racial bias. We can’t expect an honest answer because we don’t have direct access to the subconscious record with its millions of bits of data any more than we have access to the neurological programming that enables us to tell up from down, left from right, and hot from cold.

Biased information based on years of subtle observations will be fed to us consciously as intuitive feelings or explicit knowledge, and these inclinations will require very few visible or audible cues to enable us to instantaneously match and confirm our internalized data, all the while maintaining that we don’t have a prejudiced bone in our body.  

Now, if the notion of racial bias and negative stereotyping were not complicated enough, we also have to contend with the fact that we human beings are a tribal species. We have an innate sense of fairness which can easily translate to an aversion to people who do not work to pull their own weight. We are always on the lookout for enemies and cheaters. In a nutshell, we are evolutionarily rigged for an in-group versus out-group worldview. Ironically, as anthropologist Jack Weatherford points out, “The communications industry has retribalized the world.”

We seek the shelter of group consensus, and our group identity is reinforced and reassured when we can collectively identify those who qualify as being outsiders. A divisive delineation of us and them is literally in our genes, and today’s exponential increase in diversity makes us hyperaware of otherness. The tribal instinct is how we construct an us, while the ability to readily identify a them helps us bond.   

We are innately wary of outsiders and strange customs, and yet, at the same time, we are profoundly social creatures, eager to form groups based on similarities and appearances. People given different colored hats on entering a room will show signs of bonding by color in a matter of minutes. Just consider our propensity to take sides in professional team sports, where the players aren’t even from the regions they represent.

My point is that all over the country we have people swearing that racial prejudice is a thing of the past, and yet we have myriad statistics that show racial bias is very much alive and firmly established in the present. Everywhere people sincerely believe that because they don’t harbor a conscious negative racial bias, they obviously don’t have one.

Until we truly understand the deep-seated nature of racial bias and the fact that it takes enormous intellectual and emotional effort to overcome it, we are doomed to failed social interactions and the resulting communal strife. One of life’s most underappreciated and underutilized lessons is that, more often than not, things are not as they appear, and we pay an enormous social price for not constantly heeding such wisdom.

I don’t know if a lifetime of subconscious assumptions can ever be completely overwritten, but I do know from personal experience that a strong effort to deconstruct one’s own racial bias can be psychologically transforming. To me it’s clear that the future of human relations depends upon a sincere effort to overcome our ignorant assumptions based on our biological predispositions for misunderstanding one another.

It’s very important, however, not to underestimate how much determination is required to objectively understand the nature and debilitating social effects of racial prejudice. Moreover, it’s crucial to understand that when children grow up internalizing prejudicial views that are not successfully challenged, their bigotry can be prevalent and socially corrosive for most of a century.  

American demographics are changing at the fastest pace in our history. In the near future, white Americans will become a minority, and signs of discontent lamenting this reality are already being heard. There is deep-seated irony in the fact that the overturned tables of racial discrimination are making a truism of the old notion that what goes around comes around.

If as a culture we were resolve to wage war on ignorant assumptions and learn en masse what is already well known about the nature of bias, we might have an opportunity to inspire enough empathy and goodwill to set some of our negative tribalistic inclinations aside, or at least mitigate them, long enough to behave politically like enlightened adults. We could expand the membership of our tribe without incurring so much angst.

You may have heard a warning to senior citizens that if you had chicken pox as a child, then you have a one-in-three chance of getting shingles. Similarly, if you internalized a racial bias growing up, the odds are much higher that the bias still exists. Even people dedicated to equal rights are often shocked to discover they still bear a hidden bias.

Numerous psychological test instruments in cyberspace can help you check to see whether you harbor a hidden racial bias. Simply Google testing for racial bias, consider the reputations of the psychologists who authored the test, and proceed. Harvard University and the University of Virginia both offer tests online. Many people report being able to detect their own hidden biases as they answer the questions. This kind of experience can result in an enhanced sense of mindfulness. The only thing you have to lose by taking such a test is your illusions.  

We have evidence that our species has continued to evolve since our days as hunter-gatherers, and it’s clear that nothing like our present society has ever existed. There is, however, some similarity between our current situation and the period in which the danger of being eaten alive was ever present. The threat today consists in being under constant assault in, by, and through the media and electronic communications that make our lives easier while simultaneously subjecting us to every conceivable kind of scam that the criminals and cheaters in our midst can dream up.

Danger in a cyber-mediated world simply replaces the snapping of a twig and the threat of being eaten with the clicking of a communication device and chance of being scammed. The level of distrust generated by cybercrime aggravates our tribal tendencies for paranoia and bias based on very little information.

In a world driven by hypermedia, a viable future requires that we acknowledge our shortsighted tribalistic dispositions and compensate with the intelligence required to put an end to the curse of human conflict that has plagued us for eons because of egregious social misperceptions and ignorant assumptions.

In other words, our default neurological bias hardware requires an emotional and intellectual software patch for dealing with unprecedented change. We’ll need to apply the patch ourselves until evolution sees fit to adjust for our hypermediated lifestyles, if we want to increase the likelihood that our species will survive.

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