by John Moriarty, originally published here .
Maybe you cringed a little at the title. Maybe you thought, ‘Oh boy, there’s no good way to follow that.’ Perhaps you finished it off yourself somehow. My thought was something along the lines of ‘Sure buddy, you just sometimes say racist things,’ which illustrates part of the difficulty in talking about our biases, especially unconscious biases, which were the subject of this FCL workshop. It began with an introduction to the basics of unconscious bias from Dr. Véronique Desnain, followed by a discussion on sex and gender bias led by Ellen Davis-Walker and a segment on racial bias by Dr. Issa Robson. The session closed with a practical activity exploring just how equal society is.
I’ve thought for a long time that the way the human mind works is fascinating. It gives us an insight into how we think and, the more we learn about it, the more we have to challenge our assumptions about the way we think. As a basic example, take an expression like ‘I felt it in my heart’. This refers to a real feeling that can accompany many different emotions: joy, anxiety, grief, anger. You feel a tightness in your chest as though something was actually squeezing your heart, but all those sensations are happening in your brain. You perceive them elsewhere because that’s how humans work, but our senses aren’t perfect and they don’t tell us the whole story.
When it comes to thought, especially unconscious thought, things gets even harder, since we generally just think, much like we just walk or breathe. A lot of the work is done without much conscious thought based on our past experience and a little instinct. So while we like to think of ourselves as rational beings making rational choices, a more accurate image might be well-intentioned, slightly smarter-than-average chimpanzees.
What I didn’t appreciate until I did some more reading was the immense gulf between the amount of information that comes into our brains compared to the amount we can actually think about at once. Pinning down a bit rate for the brain is tricky, since it isn’t a computer and doesn’t follow the same rules, but some research has put the amount of information coming in through our eyes at a little under 20 Mbit/s (around the speed of a good ethernet connection)1.
Trying to come up with a comparable bit rate for conscious thought is even harder, but estimates float in a range between 20 and 120 bit/s, depending on the tasks involved and how measurements are done2,3. The exact number isn’t very important, but the fact that these numbers are almost a million times less than what the eyes send to the brain is powerful evidence that there is a lot going on inside our heads we are not consciously aware of!
Sticking with the example of sight for now, information from our eyes is handled by specialised parts of the brain which interpret it before it gets to our conscious mind. In doing so, it filters the light that comes through the eye: yellows and greens are seen as relatively more intense than reds and blues. If you think about this in evolutionary terms it makes sense: we evolved under the light of a yellow star, so our eyes are most sensitive in the yellow parts of the spectrum. Consider the lemon, one of the most obvious examples of a yellow object. In reality, lemons reflect more red light than yellow, but because our eyes don’t see red as well they appear yellow to us (unless something like tritanopia interferes)4 .
In the same way that our brains take shortcuts to process the information coming from our senses, they use mental shortcuts called heuristics to simplify decision-making. Unfortunately these come from the chimp parts of the brain, so they’ve evolved to avoid predators and find food, not to be rational or moral. Stereotypes are a kind of heuristic: they are a way to save on mental effort by categorising the world, whether fairly or unfairly.
To make matters worse, even when a particular heuristic is demonstrably false (“that chimp with different coloured hair didn’t try and kill me and take my banana!”), the chimp brain is more likely to make an exception and keep the incorrect rule than to revise or discard the rule itself (“that particular chimp with different coloured hair is OK, the rest are murderous banana thieves”)5
By understanding that this is part of what it is to be human and being aware of when the chimp brain is doing our thinking for us, we can counteract these unconscious biases to a certain degree, or at least make plans to reduce their effects.
What We Can Do About It
An important point made during the session was that it is difficult to have useful discussions about unconscious biases. When it comes to biases about race, sex, gender or any other sensitive issue, many of us have come to view words like racist or sexist (or irrational, or biased) as insults rather than as descriptions of behaviour. In doing so, we condemn ourselves to feeling upset about being described that way rather than actually thinking about our actions and addressing our behaviour – perhaps becoming a little more rational and a little less biased in the process.
A vital thing to remember is that biases aren’t always expressed in obvious ways. Sometimes, especially when we’re dealing with unconscious bias, it comes out as much smaller things that wear down the people affected by it over time. For example, “Where are you from?” is an entirely reasonable thing to ask a person, but if they don’t fit your chimp brain’s stereotype of chimps from the particular place they mention, following up with, “Where are you really from?” implies that (a) they don’t belong and (b) they aren’t being honest with you. It isn’t a racist tirade, but if different people ask that question regularly it’s easy to see how it could get real old, real fast.
As an exercise in empathy, consider a question you don’t like being asked. Maybe it’s, “Have you done your homework?” or, “When are you getting married?” or “When are you having another baby?”. Now imagine that someone different asks you it, twice a day, every day. After a while, your inner chimp will want to throw bananas at someone (I think I might make it a week… maybe).
Also mentioned was how useful the internet is for anyone who wants to learn about these issues. Asking someone who knows more about it than you is all well and good if they’re happy to do it, but chances are you can just google it instead and save them the trouble. You get to pick how long or complicated an explanation you want and they don’t get wrung out repeating the same explanations to everyone with the same questions as you.
The final presentation of the day was a more personal one, with Dr. Robson recounting her experience of racial bias at university and in the veterinary profession. It wasn’t easy listening. When it doesn’t impact us personally, it can easy to forget that racism still exists and still makes people’s lives miserable.
More importantly, returning to the previous point, from the outside it can look like an isolated incident, while to those impacted the effect is sustained and profoundly awful. Dr. Robson detailed numerous occasions where other people would try to convince her that a particular incident was “just a joke” or that the prepetrator was “really a nice person”: effectively telling her what her own experiences were (and directly contradicting her own memory).
There is a name for this kind of behaviour: gaslighting, and it’s a form of psychological abuse. Again, empathy is key. If someone comes to us and is clearly upset about something, casually waving away their concerns and trying to tell them what their feelings ought to be is not a good response. We owe each other far better than that.
To finish off the day, we took part in a group exercise to try and make us think about the realities of people with very different lives from us. We were each given a piece of paper with a short description of a person: age, sex, gender expression, education, wealth, circumstances – all sorts of things. We then stood in a row and were asked a series of questions. For each “yes” answer we took a step forwards, for each “no” a step back. After a few dozen questions it became obvious that there were two clusters of people: one stuck against the back wall and another group spread across the front of the room.
As a way of visualising and exploring how society treats people differently it was a simple but powerful approach. Seeing the other people in the room either disappear in front or behind you was quite a chilling illustration of how unfair our “equal” society can be, as well as being an effective way to “walk” a mile in someone else’s shoes.
The Bottom Line
Having these conversations – any of them – isn’t easy: they require us to put our chimp brains on hold and instead try to pick through what can be complex issues that we might not fully understand. That said, if we want a society of rational people free from bias (conscious or unconscious), we must have the courage to communicate about subjects that make us uncomfortable, the empathy to appreciate experiences different from our own and the kindness to support each other as we try to do what is right, regardless of how uncomfortable it might be.
References, Notes and Information for the Curious
1. Koch, K., McLean, J., Segev, R., Freed, M. A., Berry, M. J., Balasubramanian, V., & Sterling, P. (2006) How Much the Eye Tells the Brain. Current Biology, 16 (14), 1428-1434. A fascinating paper on the subject of retina bit rate in gerbils (extrapolated to humans).
2. M. Csikszentmihalyi, Flow and the Foundations of Positive Psychology which estimates the conscious mind capable of ~120 bit/s based on the information in a conversation.
3. The Information Capacity of the Human Motor System in Pursuit Tracking. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 12 (1). An attempt to measure bit rate by having participants track a moving target. The authors mention several other attempts to make similar measurements.
4. Lemons are more red than yellow (see page 4).
5. Kunda, Z. & Oleson, K. C. (1995). Maintaining stereotypes in the face of disconfirmation: Constructing grounds for subtyping deviants. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 68 (4), 565-579. A good demonstration of how rational we aren’t.
6. Project Implicit: a project at Harvard University that attempts to quantify unconscious bias. You can take a test yourself if you’d like!
7. The Kirwan Institute publishes annual reviews on the research on unconscious bias. The 2013 and 2014 reviews are good general introductions to the subject, while later years focus more on different aspects of the subject.