Choose Meaning and Live Better
When should we tune out (and into) our biases?
Posted Feb 13, 2018
Guest Author: Mollie Teitelbaum
We have a bad habit of focusing on people’s superficial, negative qualities. Happiness and fulfillment can be gained by giving weight to what should ultimately guide our behavior: people’s profound, positive qualities. Appreciating these aspects of individuals fosters meaningful and mutually beneficial experiences.
Understanding and Combating Biases
Bias has been getting a lot of attention lately due to a growing understanding of the influences it has on our actions and attitudes outside of our awareness (Banaji & Greenwald, 2013). A phenomenon called negativity bias makes us far more sensitive to negative things than to positive ones. If two disparate events are of equivalent strength, the event that is negative will elicit much greater psychological activity and will impact behavior more (Baumeister, et al., 2001). Evolutionarily, this makes sense as it protects us from harm, but if our default is to dwell on the negative and to ignore the positive, then how can we hope to be happy, optimistic people?
A good first step is gaining a better understanding of biases and their scope. Biases are built-in attitudes that color our perception of a thing, person, or group. While sometimes, the term bias is restricted to unfair judgments, I am using it to describe any perceptional skewing of emotional attitudes. Biases can be arranged from negative to positive, and from superficial to profound. Negative attitudes mostly serve to protect us from harm, and positive attitudes reflect the promotion of our ideals. Our superficial attitudes are mainly influenced by experiences that only have short-term value, often relating to social conventions and other relatively trivial preferences. Profound attitudes tend to reflect an individual’s morality and other meaningful merits.
Mere recognition of biases doesn’t enable us to totally monitor their influence on our behavior. Thankfully, we can learn to notice the biases we latch onto to try and re-orient ourselves to give more weight to what we deem most productive and valuable. One can work towards these goals using mediating techniques like mindfulness, which I discuss later on. The hope is to override, or at least, to reduce, our Negativity Bias with a positive one to highlight the very meaningful, intrinsic worth of those around us. Far superior to our default of harping on the negative and superficial, a commitment to honoring positive, profound biases promotes our flourishing.
Here are four categories of bias towards people:
1) Superficial Negative Bias
“She’s so full of herself.” “His hair is always greasy—does he even shower?” “She’s late…all the time.” Judgments such as these, though admittedly not reactions to the most severe wrongdoings, often demand our attention as soon as we make them. When these biases are conscious, sometimes they can be useful, as when deciding between job candidates or romantic partners. The problem with them is that even though they respond to relatively small offenses, we assign them disproportional weight. Biases that we acknowledge consciously also impact our behavior subconsciously. They make us treat people less kindly, for instance, by demonstrating through our tone and body language that we don’t care about what others are saying (Brennan, 2016, 244). Without realizing it, we are overreacting to what is superficial as if it is profound. In actuality, the superficial negative is often more innocent than it seems, largely motivated by context and factors outside of someone’s control. (For more detail, see here).
2) Profound Negative Bias
A profound negative bias is rightfully elicited by acts that reflect deep and meaningful wrongdoing, as with extreme selfishness, malice, close-mindedness, or immorality. If a racist commits a hate crime, this is profoundly bad and warrants judgment. This extreme example obviously demonstrates a profound level of negativity, but other biases, against greed, lateness, or egoism, for example, must be evaluated on a case by case basis to understand the extent to which they are profound versus superficial. Assessing this requires taking into account factors like intent, personality, control, and context. Profound qualities are often revealed over time due to their complex and personal nature. Profound negative biases should be taken seriously when assessing one’s character and deciding what sort of relationships to (or maybe not to) establish.
3) Superficial Positive Bias
As with superficial negative biases, superficial positive biases can impact our impressions of people disproportionately. While being influenced to perceive someone as more positive might seem like it would be advantageous, to overvalue what is merely a superficial quality is problematic. Consider how physically beautiful people tend to be treated better in a restaurant, or the workplace—complete strangers and peers, alike, act more kindly and are more attentive to these individuals due to a biological trait they have no responsibility for. These people have a real societal advantage. In choosing a romantic partner, it is easy to be smitten by superficial positives like flattery, athleticism, charm, and social class, but in the long run, these sorts of qualities do not necessarily contribute to healthy, successful relationships. These biases are valuable, however, in establishing initial connections with people.
4) Profound Positive Bias
Traits such as compassion, patience, caring, kindness, responsiveness, and sincerity are profoundly positive. They reflect a genuine, deep interest in others’ well being; and their expression, especially when reciprocal, allows people to cultivate meaningful relationships. These are not qualities that are necessarily apparent upon meeting someone, and their tendency to be accompanied by calmness and a disinterest in recognition or praise makes them easy to overlook. Tuning into this kind of bias influences us to treat people with humanity, through both the obvious and subtle behaviors that come with respect and admiration. Unsurprisingly, it is also useful to focus on these attributes when choosing romantic partners (Ben-Ze’ev, 2018; see also here). Unfortunately, as the Negativity Bias warns us, our mind is not automatically keenly attuned to these sorts of deep, and less apparent positive qualities. Commitment to maintaining awareness of these biases will influence behaviors that are big, small, intentional, and unintentional, all contributing to well deserved positive treatment.
Common reactions to learning about biases that distort our perception include being defensive and offended, “Why are there forces outside of my control that consistently mislead me?” One problem with this response is that it ignores the reality that biases are necessary shortcuts for navigating the complex and extensive thought processes that we inherently depend upon. We need automatic, spontaneous responses to be efficient, to protect ourselves, and to behave with fluency. Also, many experiences are confounding without the influence of bias as an explanation. First impressions frequently turn out to be totally inaccurate. People go on multiple dates, to later realize that they find each other to be completely mismatched. These mistakes are not random or even unpredictable—they are traps that people fall into when they fail to maintain awareness of the sources of their impressions of people.
It is unsurprising that it is a Buddhist practice that proves useful in controlling misguided impressions that stem from biases. Buddhism acknowledges the powerful, and often harmful, capacity of mental states to motivate irrational behavior that one would not consciously endorse. To cultivate the skill of mindfulness, Buddhists (and nowadays, many others who see the value in this practice) actively observe their thoughts, and try to be present in their experiences. By gaining awareness of anxious, chaotic, or counterproductive mental processes, one can learn to merely acknowledge these thoughts, not give them weight, and let them go. There has been significant research demonstrating the utility of mindfulness in combating bias (Djikic, Langer, & Stapleton, 2008; Lueke & Gibson, 2015).
Mindfulness requires an intentional, investigative inner voice: Do you like that individual because of a quality that is superficial or profound? Was your impression the result of an unfair stereotype that made you feel like that person is probably a certain way, or was there time and discussion involved in gaining true understanding?
Being diligent about acknowledging the sources of our perceptions can prevent unethical actions rooted in baseless impressions. Beyond that, deciding to concentrate less on the negative (especially when it is superficial) and more on the positive (particularly, when profound) elicits our respect and admiration for the most meaningful qualities of the people around us. Biases should never be given free rein in motivating behavior, however, when we intentionally align them with our priorities, they become valuable tools in leading the good life.
Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Finkenauer, C., & Vohs, K. D. (2001). Bad is stronger than good. Review of general psychology, 5(4), 323.
Banaji, M. R., & Greenwald, A. G. (2016). Blindspot: Hidden biases of good people. Bantam.
Ben-Ze’ev, A. (Under contract, 2018) Is Love Best When it is Fresh? The Role of Time in Love. University of Chicago Press.
Brennan, S. (2016). Brownstein, M., & Saul, J. (Eds.). Rethinking the moral significance of micro-inequities. Implicit Bias and Philosophy, Volume 2: Moral Responsibility, Structural Injustice, and Ethics. Oxford University Press.
Djikic, M., Langer, E. J., & Stapleton, S. F. (2008). Reducing stereotyping through mindfulness: Effects on automatic stereotype-activated behaviors. Journal of Adult Development, 15(2), 106-111.
Lueke, A., & Gibson, B. (2015). Mindfulness meditation reduces implicit age and race bias: The role of reduced automaticity of responding. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 6(3), 284-291.