Choose Your Bias

Everyone of us carries with us a bias.

It’s not our fault. We are not bad people for having a bias. In fact, most of us have a swirl of biases spinning inside of us. Everyone is given a bias from the family one emerges from. And underneath that, is a cultural bias that provides the bed of bias that you receive.

There’s simply no way around it.

When you emerge from your mother’s womb, presuming you are an actual human being, you begin to pick up the messages from the world in which you live about the nature of existence, or as I like to say, the “lay of the land.” It goes with the territory of being a human being.

While everyone is given a bias, the question is “are you aware of what your bias is?” And the answer to that question makes all the difference.

News Flash. Breaking News: Most people are not aware of their bias.

Bias is generally assumed. Like a fish swims in water unknowingly, you operate out of your bias. One inherits it from your mother, father, or other sponsoring people in your young life. When you move around in your neighborhood, in your schools, your church, or other social groupings, there is a bias that is floating in the air. It has to do with the values you hold dear, the assumptions you make about what is of value, or not, notably what is to be avoided, even shunned.

There also tends to be some parameters placed initially on valuing our kin, folks like us. That sense of “family ties” can extend to other identifications like neighborhoods, school teams, states (I lived in Texas for a decade), and even extended to our native country. This is our native identification which simply happens. It helps to form our sense of who I am.

I watched the opening ceremonies to one of our iconic gatherings in the world, the Olympics. I was moved as various countries entered the stadium, many wearing traditional garb representing their unique culture. I was prompted to remember that amazing time of seeing it close up here at Atlanta in 1996. The sense of our global connection was palpable. And then as the huge team from the United States entered, there went up the familiar chant “U S A”, which I have participated in in the past. But this time, I felt some tension within, and wondered what that was all about. Perhaps after the chest-beating nationalistic politics that fueled some crazy antics in our country, I’m a bit shy in terms of what it means, or telegraphs.

The fancy word for that is ethnocentrism referring to a special feeling of connection, that can get riled up when it is questioned or challenged. If we feel like that sense of “special” is slipping away, or worse, being taken away, we can get really upset, as it seems to threaten our sense of worth.. In terms of this bias of who “us” is, we largely just “pick them up” by breathing the air, listening to the language and nuance.

The biases that we operate with both define what we see and focus upon, as well as block our seeing things that don’t fit. One of the difficult truths for us to face is that we indeed have a bias. What are the ones that you are aware of currently? What effect does the bias have in terms of what you see and what you don’t see?

One particular dimension of bias is broadly recognized as confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias states that we welcome information and data that confirm what we already think is true. At the same time, confirmation basis points to the fact that we resist information and data that does not fit our preconceived notion of how the world is. We are limited in how we can see what is going on around us by the biases we carry around with us. It is impossible to rid ourselves of bias, so the trick seems to be focusing on increasing one’s self-awareness of the biases we have.

We resist that work, even if we recognize that we have blind spots. This follows another bias that goes along with the primary one: we prefer the easy way, the comfortable. It’s hard work to look deeply within. It’s much easier to “go with the flow”, keep it simple, even though the reality we face is complex. You might call it laziness but sloth, as one of the original seven deadly sins, sounds a little more dire. I just like the way “sloth” sounds, exotic and all, as opposed to ordinary old “lazy”, which was the tagline for a Spanky and Our Gang song.

Sloth is our reticence at working hard. We gather with people “like us”, in gated communities, in media audiences, in isolated groupings that are easy to be in.

I recently went to dinner with a couple I did not know. The table conversation was polite as we did the usual, marking connections to past places where we had lived, people we knew…you know, the regular drill. Near the end of the meal, one of the couple made a curious statement, “We almost never fight.”

I bit. “So, when do you fight?” What the hell was I thinking?

“We’ve had three big fights in our marriage, and they all were about politics. So we just avoid that subject.”

I laughed, nervously, and said that might be a wise, strategic decision. I wondered aloud how they managed to avoid that in the past year of the election, and with the events of January 6th. At that point, one of the couple launched into a rather animated diatribe against one side of the political divide, taking no prisoners. I watched the other member of the couple literally recede into the background, disappearing for a time, while the partner held forth.

I remember thinking to myself, this absent partner must choose to practice this tactic a good bit. And as the other partner went on, and on, and on, I remember reflecting on the quiet one, “This is a smart person, very wise.”

And, of course, I was tempted to respond in kind to the assault by countering with a pithy retort. My wife nudged me under the table, fearing my typical move which would rend the “nice” evening with conflict. I am frankly surprised that I did not respond, but weighing the value of such an engagement with someone that I did not know was not worth the price of admission. So I merely offered a comment on the preparation of the fresh fish of the day, grouper I believe. A tasty catch. Check, please!

I offer this scene as an overt decision to not engage because I consciously decided not to do so. I was exercising my slothful nature intentionally, self-consciously, or at least I told myself that. I am coining a new clinical phrase: sloth in service of one’s soul.

This came out of many encounters I have had over the past four years that make me reticent to engage in conversation that promised no-win. I keep getting that lesson over and over on social media when trolls want to play “let’s have an argument over something I know nothing about, and have absolutely no desire to learn!” I was opting for comfort over the hard work, and potentially costly price of engagement. That was a relatively easy choice, a conscious decision. Truth is, that’s not how it usually happens. We act without intention, defaulting to a comfortable level of ecstasy, a Lyle Lovett reference. It’s normally unconscious. That’s the way bias operates. We don’t even know it when it happens.

It may not come as good news, but the news is we can become more aware of our biases, our all too familiar defaults, if you will, our prejudices. But it is hard work, and we may prefer to simply get the check, and move on.

We’re back to my own fundamental bias about the nature of human existence. It is best and most fully lived with self-awareness. One is always in process of gaining insight and clarifying the depths of one’s self, but it is possible to grow intentionally and develop that awareness through time. Self-awareness is the starting point of the human capacity known as emotional intelligence as one seeks to master one’s own emotions, deciding how to respond in various situations, as well as knowing how to exercise empathy with others and function in groups. And again, the good news is this capacity can be increased by paying attention to one’s self, the emotions you feel, when they arise, and what triggers them.

As I am suggesting, another way to develop your self awareness is to pause, and reflect on your biases. Pause.

PAUSE is a favorite word of mine, a word I have used for my own growth. I have placed the word “Pause” in various place in my environment. On my desk, on my dashboard, even in my wallet, which is a prompt to stop in the middle of my busyness and business, and reflect on the present moment, or a Howard Thurman would say, in the NOW moment. It’s a neat trick I have learned to use, particularly in times of high stress. Pause. How often do you allow your Self the time and space to PAUSE?

If you do, you can simply savor the moment of being, tuning your various senses to what is happening around you. As my friend, Elgin Wells, told me, there’s an extravaganza out there just waiting to be noticed! Or maybe it was Thoreau…..No, definitely Elgin.

But there’s deeper work to do, if, if you are up to it.

Are you willing to begin by admitting that you, in fact, have biases? And then, can you articulate them, perhaps tracing where they come from in your personal history?

Finally, do you have the courage to examine those biases carefully to see if there are some that are due for revision, or a deeper look? It’s not an easy, quick task. It’s not for the faint of heart. But it is a worthy project that may surprise you with some insights and clues as to who you are. Brave journey.

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