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How Bias Influences Perception: Three Lenses of Positionality

Updated: Dec 20, 2022

In his 2011 book on the topic, Daniel Kahneman defined two systems operating in our brains that he termed fast and slow. Our slow brain is what controls our conscious decision-making and thought, however this is only a fraction of our brain’s daily functions. The vast majority of our daily processing lies in the fast part of our brain, where heuristics, our mental shortcuts, determine direct, emotional, intuitive answers so that we can process information more quickly.

These shortcuts are what create our implicit bias, the unconscious attitudes and stereotypes that affect our thoughts and behavior. We all have them. These are different from known or conscious biases that people are aware of (and may conceal for social or political reasons). Implicit biases are so deeply embedded 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 (confirmation bias), to giving the “benefit of the doubt” to individuals who conform to specific qualities we prefer (halo effect). Bias includes both positive associations in preferring one quality over another, and negative associations in rejecting or discriminating against specific qualities.

Why is Bias Important?

Bias isn’t all bad, or to be put more plainly, there are evolutionary functions that these biases serve, such as helping us reach decisions quickly in times of danger. We process a great deal of information every day, and in times of crisis with high emotions and high stakes, we can suffer from cognitive overload. Compartmentalizing and generalizing keep large concepts more manageable and provide stability in times of danger, stress, and anxiety.

Yet this is exactly why ignoring what our biases might be and how they form can be so catastrophic. 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. In the case of police and healthcare, our mental shortcuts can even result in the loss of human life. By remaining unaware of the biases we hold and their power over our “objectivity,” we can confuse beliefs with facts.

These biases can feed into moral convictions, which are constructs that you believe 1) supersede all societal rules, 2) apply to everyone, and 3) are apparent and don't need explaining. Changing minds is incredibly difficult because so many people have so many moral convictions they aren't willing to examine. You can learn more here.

Origins of Bias

So there is a great deal of research proving that we all have bias and that it impacts our interactions with the world, but how do we form these narratives 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 “objectively.”

No matter who we are, we live in the world and our understanding of it is shaped by our place in it, including our identity, the culture we live in and the people we meet and experiences we have.