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Bias Blind Spots
Why we're blind and what we can do to see the world as it is
Amid the ongoing chaos, I hope this message finds you well. If you’re a newbie, welcome, and thank you for joining!
The last few weeks have been intense, to say the least. As the riots over George Floyd’s death rage on, dozens of officers and protestors have been injured, and there’s no sign of stopping.
For many, the protests are an extension of the long-overdue tensions built from systemic oppression. As someone who grew up in a radically homogenous community, I can’t say I’ve experienced these oppressions. Now, after living in downtown Seattle for over a decade and spending the majority of my career consulting in the world’s largest, most diverse cities, I’ve seen this oppression play out in front of my own eyes. But the recent violence and turbulence caused me to reexamine my own perspectives and the underlying issues that may be driving our individual assessment of the situation.
Today’s article focuses on the bias blind spot, and what we can do to dismantle deep-rooted prejudices that lie within all of us.
Alright, let’s dive in.
The Bias Blind Spot — Dismantling the Deep-Rooted Prejudice Within Us
4 min read
- written by Kevin Kirkpatrick
Yesterday, hundreds of people were arrested as protesters and police clashed in the streets while protesting the death of George Floyd. For those who have been actively avoiding the news as a way to cope with COVID19 depression or anxiety, I wish I could say this situation is novel.
Unfortunately, this is not the first killing of an unarmed black man or the first violent protest that has followed similar killings. The circumstances of George Floyd’s death mirror the many that have come before him. The pattern — and yes, it’s a pattern — goes something like this:
A black person is viewed as suspicious.
Police are called to a situation.
The situation escalates and tensions rise.
[insert violent police-civilian interaction]
A black person dies.
In this particular case, the violent interaction came when Derek Chauvin placed his knee on Floyd’s neck for over nine (9) minutes until he became unresponsive and eventually choked to death.
We know the pattern because we see the videos. We’ve become accustomed to watching these events unfold. And people are beyond fed up.
But, if we’ve seen this play out so many times, why does the pattern continue? How does this keep happening? Wouldn’t it be obvious that if someone was choking you shouldn’t kneel on their neck? If Floyd was already handcuffed, why continue restraining him so aggressively? If you’re being filmed, how will this look to the public?
As with everything in life, the answers and questions contain hidden layers of nuance.
The Bias Blind Spot.
We’re terrible at evaluating ourselves. Whether it’s judging our performance at work or our perceptions of another race, we’re not particularly insightful. Why? Our cognitive biases keep us from seeing the truth that lies just below the surface of our conscious mind.
The cognitive biases that fill our mind act like a funhouse mirror, distorting and reshaping everything we see in the world. While researchers like Daniel Kahneman and Timothy Wilson have done incredible work to peel back the curtain and give us a look at the interworkings of our mind, it’s still a bit of a black box. Bias blindspots exist and cause us to make sub-optimal decisions at every turn.
The bias blind spot is a term coined by Emily Pronin, a Princeton social psychologist who, through a series of experiments, showed that people rate themselves as less vulnerable to biases than the average person. As Pronin put it,
“This “meta-bias” is rooted in our ability to spot systematic mistakes in the decisions of others—we excel at noticing the flaws of friends—and inability to spot those same mistakes in ourselves.”
The underlying hypothesis here is that we tend to evaluate ourselves differently than we do others.
In the words of Jonah Lehrer in the New Yorker:
“When considering the irrational choices of a stranger, for instance, we are forced to rely on behavioral information; we see their biases from the outside, which allows us to glimpse their systematic thinking errors. However, when assessing our own bad choices, we tend to engage in elaborate introspection. We scrutinize our motivations and search for relevant reasons; we lament our mistakes to therapists and ruminate on the beliefs that led us astray.”
The issue is that our nervous system is designed to elevate these biases. The brain’s capacity for gut reactions was developed in our evolutionary ancestors, who lived in homogenous groups and understood that anyone outside of the group could be a threat to their survival. We build mechanisms that allow us to define “us” and “them,” without any conscious awareness.
These biases have remained in our DNA for millennia, guiding how we perceive the world around us. In addition to the ancestral biases, our experiences, preferences, education, and upbringing all continue to contribute to the model of who we are. None of these biases are inherently bad on their own. The biases become problematic when we weaponized these biases as an excuse to suppress a particular group of people.
Check Your Blind Spots
If no one is immune to bias, what can we do? The first step is to recognize it. Remember, everyone is biased. Biases in isolation are designed to help us survive. These biases are not inherently negative unless we give them the power to keep us from progressing.
Fortunately, while the change may not be easy, it is possible. Our biases will always exist, but our actions may be able to change our default state. We can override our worst impulses and reduce our prejudices, simply by acting out the behaviors and beliefs that counter these default settings.
There is no simple checklist to follow. There are only intentional, sustained actions. Here are the actions I’m challenging myself to employ.
Thoughtful Internal Examination
The bias blind spot is deeply related to another important bias — the introspective illusion. Many people assume they have a clear insight into their mental states, which leads them to believe they’re in control of their actions and behaviors. In fact, studies have shown that “the more we attempt to know ourselves, the less we actually understand.” Instead of attempting to understand the “why,” I find it more productive to think about the “how.”
When a situation arises that triggers an emotional response, ask yourself how you’d feel if someone you loved said or did the same thing. Would you still respond the same way?
You may not be able to walk in someone else’s shoes, but you can certainly try to understand their journey. Whether it’s working in a soup kitchen or just reading the stories of historically oppressed people, knowledge is the key to empathy. By spending time — either directly or indirectly — with people you’re not familiar with, you’re resetting your brain’s default algorithm and redrawing the boundaries between “us” and “them.”
“Thoughts and prayers” have now been passed off as a useless media trope for tragic events. During these moments, it’s easy to post your outrage in social media, which, to be clear, can be an effective path to support. But if we truly want to change our biases, we must be careful not to appropriate others’ experiences. We should respectfully champion and support, but continue to examine our own behaviors. Change starts with us
Listen and Learn
To my friends and community who speak the words of support, I encourage you to continue your efforts and remain supportive. Voice your confusion and ask your questions. But most of all, listen and learn from what’s already been said. The problem — and solution hypotheses — are well documented. Let’s learn from the past, so we can improve the future.
Our ability to change is gated by our ability to learn from our mistakes. If, like me, you’d like to seek knowledge, understanding, and guidance, please feel free to join me as I explore the knowledge of others.
2 min read
Rebecca Traister’s piece is an eye-opening, data-driven account of the major discrepancies in the treatment of prisoners. Her article exposes the implications of biased officers, specifically highlighting the preferential treatment that white young men receive, while black men are often dehumanized in similar circumstances. This isn’t about being right or wrong, it’s about being accurate.
I considered putting my own list together, but Arianna Rebolini’s is better. There are a lot of books here that haven’t made my list, so I’ve got some reading to do.
“We do not know the future. We do not know what the world will be like in a hundred years, or fifty, or ten. We do not know how our descendants will survive, and we do not know what fictions they will need to make their lives bearable. The future, like the past, is a foreign country, but one whose borders are forever closed to the present. What we do know is that all living things suffer and all living things die, and that so long as humans exist on earth, there will be a world in which they live—a subjective imagination of the sum total of contemporary human existence.” — Roy Scranton
<1 min read
Every cognitive bias in your pocket. Keep your friends close and your cognitive biases closer.
Pocket Biases is an app developed by product leader, Buster Benson. Each day, Pocket Biases delivers a new bias for you to learn and examine. It’s helped me to recognize my own biases as well as the biases that naturally exist in the world around us.
Life isn’t a matter of milestones, but of moments.
— Rose Kennedy
<1 min read
I have a short list of books that I buy for others — Thinking, Fast and Slow is at the top of that list. I’ve personally read this book twice and plan to read it a third time this summer.
It’s impossible to exaggerate the importance of this book. Kahneman’s work has changed our understanding of the way we think and choose. Whether you’re looking to understand the errors in human judgment, increase your reason and rationality, or explore the depths of happiness and wellbeing, Thinking, Fast and Slow is a comprehensive guide to avoiding biased thinking.
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Thanks for reading, and see you next week,
— Kevin K.