Updated: Jan 7
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 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 (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.
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.
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 socio-political categories may be socially constructed, but they have very real impact on our lived experience, 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).
However, other aspects of our identity may be less visible to the world, but also deeply impact how we perceive it. It’s important to consider how our collective history or shared story (having been through the Cold War or growing up in an inner city) influences our assumptions. Our values, the roles we hold, our innate mindsets. These each add layers of why we might interpret actions or behaviors in a specific way.
However, if it was just our identity that influenced our bias, it would be more predictable. We have to also consider the culture we operate in.
Culture is in many ways an elusive concept. It includes the many expectations and standards related to language, values, rituals, and social customs. It is more than just food, fashion, and gestures. Culture is also how we define our rules of engaging with one another, beliefs about family, work, government, and crime. Our identities help us create communities, and communities in turn create cultures. That means there are many different cultures out there, whether globally, in our nation, region, city, or even our organization.
However, not all culture’s occupy the same amount of space and recognition. A dominant culture is a culture that has been able, through economic, social, or political power, to impose its values, language, and ways of behaving on subordinate cultures. It is often so ubiquitous that it is almost invisible to those within it; behaviors which are perceived as “normal,” “appropriate,” or “successful.” Whether or not it is ever expressly stated, we receive this information through our media and pop culture, our schooling and education, and it is reinforced by our friends and community.
These values, behaviors, and customs deeply influence our understanding of the world. Actions outside of the “norms” can result in a negative perception, discrimination, and outright violence, just as conforming to those norms offers potential socio-economic 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.
Regardless of proximity to the culture of power, people from all cultures may subconsciously internalize qualities from the culture of power as desirable, resulting in an internalized oppression. For example, there are specific behaviors often identified with being a “good student” in class (raising your hand and waiting to be called on before speaking). These norms are determined by the dominant culture. Behaviors that may be more common in other cultures (speaking up without raising a hand) are interpreted as “bad” behaviors, sometimes even by those from the other culture.
We have to be wary of how our bias can stem from our understanding of normative customs, and on the undue burden we may place on others to conform to them.
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, to shift our lenses and allow us to see more clearly. 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. When each lens reinforces the same narrative, we mistakenly believe they don’t exist. Our interpretation of a behavior or individual is perceived as objective reality. It’s only when we actively disrupt our lenses that we are able to recognize our bias and address it.
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.