More specifically, how are your biases impacting your decision making?
For those of you that are currently sitting back and saying to yourself, “I don’t have any biases”, I’m sorry to burst your bubble, but we all do! What we need to do however is limit them. Before you stop reading this article to the end and start firing off comments, I’m not implying that you’re racist by any means, just making you aware that we all harbour certain beliefs that may impact our decisions.
Like a computer, our brains process millions of bits of information in a second. Consciously, our brains can only process a maximum of 40 bits of information. This means that there are 100’s of thousands of bits of information active behind the scenes. Think of it this way, when you’re driving your vehicle, you’re assessing the road conditions, speed, traffic around you, traffic control and numerous other factors that may require an adjustment of your operation of that vehicle. At the same time, there is much more going on around you that isn’t processed consciously such as wind direction, foliage and pets or wildlife nearby. Although these may seem insignificant, instantly without warning, they could impact your decision making to avoid an accident.
To help process all the information coming in, we tend to lump things together into categories to allow us to react quicker. For example, pets and wildlife may be summed up subconsciously as animals instead of the latter. As a result, sometimes unfair biases may be formed.
What we need to establish is a baseline that biases are beliefs that are not founded on known facts and may develop attitudes towards a person or specific groups of people. In most instances, people are not even aware that they have certain biases. These are referred to as unconscious or implicit bias and may develop during a lifetime, directly of indirectly. Biases developed directly usually occur from exposure to comments and opinions of those within our community whether it be the family unit growing up or work environment, including our own personal experiences. Indirect biases may occur through stereotypes that we learn through social media including movies and television.
An example of an implicit bias would be that all persons with largely developed muscles have super-human strength. Again, this opinion may have been developed directly through observations made while working out at a global gym or indirectly having watched your favorite 80’s move star throwing the ‘bad guys’ around on the big screen like they were nothing. As many of you are already aware, the truth is that although some are strong, many are not, and there are just as many average looking individuals that possess real strength from working on farms, machinery or in other trades that require physical stamina and power.
So, if we all have biases, what can we do to ensure that we ae making the best decisions for ourselves, our loved ones, the public and our potential adversaries during any given situation?
Hypothetically, what if we were to encounter a ‘gang’ of people gathering at a street corner wearing similar coloured clothing?
Firstly, we would need to collect and assess all credible information impartially and identify potential gaps. “In order to connect the dots, you will need to collect the dots.” Who are these people? What part of town are they conjugating in, what time of day is it? Let’s say that through our assessment, we gather information that the ‘gang’ are within several blocks of a sporting stadium on an early Sunday afternoon. Would your perception of the ‘gang’ change? Are there any gaps in this information? Perhaps, where are they coming from?
When assessing the situation, be weary of ‘Confirmative Bias’, which is when we allow our desires to directly influence our beliefs. Essentially, we extract the information necessary to confirm our beliefs and delete any facts that may disprove them. This cognitive bias leads us to stop gathering information once we confirm our views or prejudices to be true and dismisses or fails to look for any contradictory evidence. We as human beings tend to strive to be correct and in doing so, will stroke our egos and often apply confirmative bias.
To avoid this, we should use our observations to confirm or refute the information and/or assumptions that were first formed. We can do this by applying critical thinking to conduct fair and impartial analysis of these observations and be open to exploring alternative possibilities. What if the same ‘gang’ was gathering in a secluded part of the community late in the evening, what would their purpose be? Are their intentions nefarious or constructive? If I were to change the term ‘gang’ to ‘group’, both of which have similar meanings, would that have altered your perception of the gathering? This could be a bias.
Another option would be to check in with others on our perceptions or beliefs. Unfortunately, often we are having to react immediately and may not have the time or opportunity to consult with others. If, however, you are with someone else and have assessed a potential problem in advance, it doesn’t hurt to bring it to their attention as well. They may see things differently, shed a different perspective, and if per chance, they agree with your initial assessment, are now aware of the situation as well.
Finally, you must be willing to change your mind, adapt and make changes to your assessment as you acquire additional information to eliminate any biases that may exist. For example, while out walking with the family looking for a place to eat downtown, a person not known to you invades your personal space and begins speaking loudly in a disruptive manner. What is your perception and primary response? Your initial reaction may be to raise your hands and create space while positioning yourself between the individual and your family as well as saying something along the lines as,” whoa, get back!”
Once you create space and an opportunity to further assess the situation, you should collect additional information about the individual, environment surrounding you and fill in any gaps missing from your initial observation. Is this individual suffering from a mental disorder and having an episode, have they mistaken you for someone else, are they intoxicated, are they in the company of someone else, perhaps a caretaker? These observations may refute your primary assumptions or confirm your analysis.
Also observe how the rest of your family are reacting to the stimulus. Although it was suggested that we consult with others, remember that communication is made up of both verbal and non-verbal. If the rest of the family are not reacting in the same manner, ask yourself why. Do they not perceive the individual as a threat, or do they believe that you are more than able to protect them. Once you have assessed all the facts, you will have likely eliminated or at the minimum, reduced any biases and are more apt to respond accordingly.