One morning, I was at the dentist having my teeth cleaned. It was shortly after Nelson Mandela died, and his life and death was naturally a topic of conversation everywhere. The hygienist was chatting away, and when she brought up Mr. Mandela’s death, her comment was one I wasn’t expecting at all. She said that she thought that he probably had lots of dental problems, being in prison all those years. It probably caused him pain, and it may have contributed to his death.
My jaw would have dropped open if it hadn’t already been open as wide as it would go. To be brutally honest, my first reaction was something like WTF. That had to be the most bizarre thing I had ever heard. But then something funny happened. It stuck with me not only all day, but for all these years since. Once her statement had marinated in my brain for a while, I realized what a fantastic example of how our biases influence how we see the world. As someone who studies dental disease, and its effects on overall health, including heart disease, it made sense that this was the window through which she saw the world. Ever since then I began to see biases everywhere, and to be more sensitive about how our unique and personal points of view impact not only how we see the world, but also how others see the same actions and events.
When discussing biases, the first reaction I get is usually defensive. People immediately focus on negative biases, and defend themselves against having them. Racism, sexism, ageism, and so on are so much a part of our history that nearly everyone immediately assumes that I am accusing them of negative behaviors. While nothing can be further from the truth, these extreme examples can be a useful starting point in discussing how more innocuous biases influence our understanding of the world. You can’t really eliminate these biases, so instead it’s important to understand your own biases so that you can be sensitive to their impact on your discussions and decisions.
Some biases help us make sense of information. In this hyper-connected information age world, you have access to more information than your brain can manage. Some of your biases provide context to the information you receive. These biases are built from experiences and beliefs about the world. For example, how is it possible that two educated, well-meaning people can read the same set of facts and statistics, yet come to drastically different conclusions? It happens in politics all the time. If a colleague disagrees with you, is he stupid and uninformed, or does he see the same information differently than you do?
Some biases help us make decisions. Just as so much information is available to us, the number of options available to us seems to increase every day. It is impossible for us to examine and build a case for every possible decision, so our biases step in to lighten the load. It can be as simple and innocuous as liking blue but hating green. Great – when shopping for a new coat, don’t even look at the green ones, and focus on the blue ones first. Easy. But what if you prefer northern accents to southern ones, or prefer extroverts to introverts? Yes, it would make choosing between job applicants “easier”, but it would also not only limit your acceptable applicant pool, but could get you sued, or worse. So while biases can help us make decisions, we need to understand this mechanism, and know when to counter it.
Some biases limit understanding. Communication is difficult under the best of circumstances. Factor in that each person is coming into the exchange with their own unique basket of biases, and it is sometimes a wonder that we understand each other at all. You would think that looking for people with similar biases as you would improve communication, but sometimes it has the opposite effect. Instead of a meaningful exchange of information, it becomes an echo chamber where you only hear and understand information you already have and understand. No learning or growth takes place. Instead, real communication comes from accepting that everyone has biases, and by really listening, asking probing questions, and challenging the assumptions that are rooted in your own biases, can you learn new information.
The biases themselves are not necessarily evil or good. They are a component of each individual self, part of what makes us unique, and human. How you act on your biases, however, makes all the difference. Some biases are benign, and worthy of understanding. Some, however, can do harm – to yourself and others, and are worth overcoming. Either way, it starts with identifying and acknowledging any biases you have, and mastering them. If you control your own biases, you can let them help you and prevent them from hurting.