April 27–Nature: Default Bias

Imagine

Mosaic from Manhattan Central Park, used with permission by common licensing.

“We were all standing outside when the contamination fell.”  So says Verna Myers in her powerful TED talkHow to overcome our biases?  Walk toward them!  She uses the metaphor in response to data showing that Americans prefer “white.”  When tested, 70% of white Americans prefer white people in any situation over others, and 50% of black Americans prefer white people in any situation.  She speaks to the default biases that we all walk around with, and she offers some specific practices for working those biases out of our experiences, our relationships and ultimately out of our culture.  To the metaphor: all of us, regardless of the color of our skin, have been shaped by the culture we live in to think of white people as preferable to others.

Myers is clear that “not seeing color” simply does not work.  When we say that we choose “not to see color” we are also, unintentionally or not, giving ourselves a way out of checking and confronting our biases.  The sad truth of culturally cultivated biases is that they “feel natural,” and working to change those biases in ourselves feels unnatural.  As Myers notes, most of the time in order to feel comfortable around something new, we have to feel uncomfortable first.  The difficult but effective advice she gives is this:  walk toward those people who make us uncomfortable.  Check out the circles that we travel in.  Consider those who are our associates, colleagues, friends and neighbors.  Who are missing?  Find those people and look for opportunities to bring ourselves into their lives and them into ours.  Reach a little farther.  Search a little deeper.  Listen a little longer.

We can choose to look long and hard at the pictures of those not in our default bias, especially those who do well, who do good things, who make something of their lives and let them become a part of our new default.  It can become a spiritual practice as real and as powerful as any meditation or prayer practice that we might have.  And, this one visibly changes the way we see the world.

Bob Patrick

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