Research is pretty clear: we all hold implicit bias, unconscious attitudes and stereotypes that affect our thoughts and behavior. They are different from known biases that people are aware of (and may conceal for social or political reasons). These biases are so deeply imbedded in our psyche that they impact not only our behaviors, but how we perceive others, without us even knowing it. Don't believe it? Harvard has several free online implicit bias tests if you want to try it out.
Psychologists have categorized many types of bias, from favoring information that already aligns with our opinions or beliefs, to giving the "benefit of the doubt" to individuals who conform to specific qualities we prefer. Bias includes both positive associations (preferring one quality over another) and negative associations (rejecting or discriminating against specific qualities).
Why is Bias Important?
Bias isn't all bad. There are evolutionary functions that these biases serve, such as helping us reach decisions quickly in times of danger. Compartmentalizing and generalizing keep large concepts more manageable and provide stability in times of stress and anxiety.
Yet a failure to examine bias and a reliance on mental shortcuts like stereotypes create barriers that impede empathy and understanding, and that ultimately perpetuate systems of inequity. By remaining unaware of the biases we hold and their power over our "objectivity,"we can confuse beliefs with facts.
Origins of Bias
But where do we get the bias and stereotypes that influence our perceptions? It's not enough to simply understand that we have biases, we need to unpack what they are and how they are created and sustained. I'd like to offer a simple model to think about the sources of bias as three lenses that color our ability to see things as they are.
Cultural & Societal Norms
The dominant culture or “culture of power” is that which is the most powerful, widespread, or influential within a social or institutional space. This includes expectations and standards related to language, values, rituals, and social customs. It is often so ubiquitous that it is almost invisible; behavior which is often simply viewed as “normal."
These values, behaviors, or customs deeply influence our bias. Actions outside of the "norms" can result in a negative perception or discrimination, just as conforming to those norms offers advantages. The closer someone's home culture is to the culture of power, the less code-switching is required to conform to those norms and the more inherent "privilege" they have. They may be seen more favorably simply by speaking or behaving the "right way."
Regardless of proximity to the culture of power, people from all cultures can subconsciously internalize qualities from the culture of power as desirable. For example, there are specific behaviors often identified with being a "good student" in class (raising your hand). These are traits belonging to the dominant culture. Behaviors that may be more common in other cultures (speaking loudly without raising a hand) are seen as "bad" behaviors, often even by those from the same community.
Our identities are complex and constantly evolving. They are developed in large part from our social identities, the ways in which we as individuals identify or are perceived by others as belonging to a particular social group based on physical, social, or mental characteristics.
These defined categories are socially constructed, but very real, and can create social, political, and institutional barriers or advantages for certain groups (ex: race, gender, sexual orientation, class, primary language, religion, etc).
Our association with particular groups can influence our bias. Studies show that people look more favorably on those who share some aspect of their identity, and less favorably to those who are "other." This is of course complicated by intersectionality, as individuals may connect with different components of their own identity in different contexts (gender and race, for example).
Finally, it is important to note that many of our biases are reinforced or developed from our experiences. If I have only ever had the same kind of interaction every time I've encountered a certain person, group, or institution, I may begin to assume that this is what will always occur. This is why seeking out different opportunities and broadening life experiences help reduce bias. As author Chimamanda Adichie cautions in her TED talk, the Danger of a Single Story, having only one narrative of a community can limit our ability to see people as complex individuals.
These lenses are not strictly separated. Some biases are related to more than one lens, or may be influenced or reinforced by all three. This is just a simple framework to start a discussion and think about some of the aspects that influence and shape our bias.
What Do We Do?
The question I'd like to leave for discussion is how we can better acknowledge our biases and the roots of it in order to transform how we interact with others. Awareness is an essential step to overcoming some of our biases, but without exposure to others with different perspectives and backgrounds it can be hard to rewire our minds.
As always, we strive to co-construct ideas and solutions together. While dialogue, alternative perspectives, and questions are encouraged, please note that extreme comments will be deleted as they do not foster collaborative communication. Instead, I would encourage you to message me directly through our website -- I am more than happy to continue conversations in person or over a phone call.