The Age of Bias.

As we ponder the consequences of the recent election and the future of the course of our country, I suggest we all sit back and channel the Talking Heads’ David Byrne who once asked “How did (we) get here?”.  How is it possible that our melting pot country, a nation of opportunity built by immigrants for immigrants, has somehow devolved into a pot instead of division, incivility, and even hatred?  A nation not united but broken in two, fueled by fear, anger and fundamental misunderstanding on both sides. Yes, both sides. For as much as I lean left I believe we are all somewhat to blame. We are all guilty of under-understanding the truth of things and instead allowing our biases to guide our points of view and decisions. 

Paradoxically as the world has become more global and our inter-connectedness more obvious, I believe our biases have actually increased. As much as we think we have made progress with racial and gender equality as example I think it’s actually not true. Sure women can vote, and sure we don’t structurally segregate, but fundamentally we look at “those not like us” as people to be wary of and we slap simple, and often not positive labels on them. It’s those labels that we hold up as shields when things get squirrely. And that’s what’s going on right now.  Now that we are a nation made up largely of “not like us” we are freaking out. 

The bias fire is fueled by change first, fear second and a lack of intellectual rigor third. This is Maslow’s Hierarchy stuff.  We suck at change. And the world is changing really, really fast. We all feel the pressure. We all worry about our own long-term relevance and our ability to meet our short-term needs. We worry about our kid’s futures. When the unknown appears to dominate the known our reptilian brains kick in, fear takes over and bias becomes the only lens we look through.  

Bias makes us see what is not there and not see what is. It thwarts our ability to listen. It’s the archenemy of objectivity.  Bias is the source code for polarization and partisanship and the magic elixir for believing we understand what’s going on when we really don’t. This is where the lack of rigor comes in. And Maslow again. Our nature is not to dig in, to study, and to take responsibility for knowing the facts and truths. Our nature is not to form our own truly individual and well-informed opinions but rather to follow our biases and declare our unfounded beliefs because, well, that’s pretty much the easiest path.  And as much as some of us believe that the truth will set us free, bias is so strong that it creates blinders to the facts and a remarkable capacity to reject data that clearly refutes what we believe. In fact, research shows that when someone is shown data that is the opposite of what they believe, they actually believe what they believe more. That is the insidious power of bias. 

The question then is how to eschew something so insidious? How can we re-unite as a country and maybe even a world on a foundation of truth, objectivity, and a shared understanding of what is good and not good for the majority if not all?   I suggest that some self-reflection of where our biases come from might prove helpful. We might see that it’s one part primal, one part cultural, and two parts situational.  Bias is the combined consequence of a very distant past, our recent past, and our perceived future.  And it dominates our present because we are afraid.

So if we can hypothesize the cause can we mitigate the effect? Can we change the way we’re looking at the world?  I believe there are only two motivators of behavior change: desperation or aspiration.  Desperation has been dominating our behavior, deepening not lessening our biases. So the only choice is aspiration; but not aspiration for us, aspiration for us all.  And that’s the trick. The only way we reunite is for the majority to desire to reunite, to place the good of the whole above what serves us individually. And to prove the integrity of our collective aspiration by backing it up with action and sacrifice. Yes, sacrifice. 

The only way to remove bias then is to take actions and make sacrifices that eliminate fear. And to eliminate fear we must provide clearer pathways for people to deal with inevitable change, while challenging them to do the hard work, apply the rigor, to understand what they need to understand to evolve.  We must give each other voice while demanding that all of our voices be steeped in the objective truth.  And we must make the education of ourselves a central tenet of citizenship. Not simply in school, but for life.  If we do not evolve, we will suffer and in our suffering we will further divide.  

As fear dissipates bias can slowly be replaced by empathy and understanding. More and more of us will look at the world not through our tinted and tainted glasses but instead through the glasses of the other person. And then we will be one.