Gut Checking: How to re-wire the unconscious mind
Imagine for a moment that you are driving in an unfamiliar city and you happen upon a mural that you simply must stop to see more closely. You pull over, park your car on the side of the road, get out of the car, and pull out your phone to snap a picture. In your periphery, you see a group of young men walking towards you. What do you do? Do you wave at the young men because they remind you of your children’s friends or sensing possible danger, do you try to get back in your car unnoticed and drive away?
No matter your response, chances are your initial reaction will be influenced by what is known as unconscious bias. Unconscious bias, sometimes called implicit bias, refers to the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner. These biases are often built up over time, through explicit and implicit conditioning; this conditioning encompasses both what we learn through the culture we are brought up in and what we learn through our firsthand experiences.
Many people think of bias as instances where people have negative feelings against someone or a group of people, which leads to a detrimental impact on someone’s success or ability to flourish. When asked if they have biased tendencies, most people would probably deny that they do, and for good reason – they think of themselves as mostly good people who care about the well-being and prosperity of others. We have been taught through many mediums that being biased and using it as way of interacting with others in our society is “bad” and, therefore, not wanting to be cast out, we reject the possibility that bias is a part of our character. As humans, we strive to be accepted, to have a sense of belonging. We have learned that admitting bias is a sure-fire way to be exiled from the group.
In fact, bias is a natural and, some would suggest, a necessary component of the human experience. Brett Pelham, the associate executive director for graduate and post graduate education at the American Psychological Association has said that “being biased is how we get through life without evaluating everything afresh every time we experience it”.1 Without bias, we would be questioning every decision we make, including the most trivial.
You might ask, "If bias is natural and we all, whether we are aware of it or not, use it to navigate the world, how can it be a bad thing?" There are times when bias does indeed work to help us avoid situations that could potentially cause us harm, as Howard Ross points out in his book, Everyday Bias: Identifying and Navigating Unconscious Judgements in Our Daily Lives. However, relying solely on bias to determine how we should move through the world can cause irrational and unfounded fear that leads to conjectures of reality that supplement reality itself. In other words, we may be making hasty judgements and decisions based on information that is simply not true. Some of the most common ways that reliance on implicit bias manifests in our daily lives are: stereotyping; deliberate avoidance (how do you feel when you drive through what folks in your area consider the “bad” part of town?); and, on the more extreme end of the spectrum, hatred and overt acts of violence.
So, what can we do to rid ourselves of the inefficiencies of biased thinking? There is a wealth of research that suggests that just like any other conditioned habit (for example, biting your nails), we can re-wire our brains to recognize when we are using potentially biased thinking. Two researchers from The University of Wisconsin-Madison, Patricia Devine and Will Cox, have developed an intervention which aims to help people override the biased concepts in their heads.2 Featured in the episode “The Culture Inside” of the podcast Invisibilia, one strategy Devine and Cox call “stereotype replacement” involves using this simple, yet effective mnemonic: Detect, Reflect, and Reject.2 The first step is to detect – that is to become aware that we are having thoughts that may be irrationally influenced by our unconscious mind. Then, Devine suggests, we stop and reflect on why it is that we are having these thoughts. Perhaps ask, “What is it that I am afraid of in this situation? What ideas do I have that have triggered my reaction to this person or situation?” Devine points out that it is imperative that we reflect on these thoughts in a non-judgmental manner “because if you panic about the thought and try to force it down or away, it'll gain power.”2 The last step in the process is to reject the thought by replacing it with other possibilities that could also be true in the situation.
Going back to the scenario at the start of this piece, recall that you are standing on the side of the road to snap a picture of a breathtaking mural as a group of young men approach you. If your reaction involved getting back in the car without another thought, how might using the Detect, Reflect, and Reject technique impact your behavior? What might you gain if you work to incorporate this mode of thinking more frequently in your day-to-day interactions? Using such strategies to examine our own biases can move us toward a more compassionate, understanding, and accepting society where incidences of hatred and intolerance are less common.
I serve as the program director at the National Conference for Community and Justice (NCCJ) of the Piedmont Triad, where we strive to provide people in our community with opportunities to come together across lines of difference and learn, discuss, and grow with one another. It is our belief that to build communities free of bias, bigotry, and racism, we must be intentional about reflecting on our personal stories and the narratives we use to navigate the world, while simultaneously working to accept others as they are, not how we wish they are.
We all have the power to transform our world for the better. I challenge you: how will you use that power to own and examine your own implicit biases and take steps toward a more positive and inclusive future?
Michael Robinson is program director at the National Conference for Community and Justice of the Piedmont Triad. He presented the webinar, Impact > Intention: Understanding Implicit Bias, with Ivan Canada, executive director of NCCJ and board member of the Center, as part of the Center’s Walking the Talk initiative.