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  • Larry Payne

Breaking Bias for Better Living




The eye doctor spoke bluntly. After testing my vision, he turned to my fiancé and said, “Has he been driving without glasses?” The tone of his voice reflected his shock that I could see the road with such poor, nearsighted vision. Humbled, I had to admit my vision was distorted, creating danger for myself and others. I had been biased to overestimate my acuity of vision and maybe a bit prideful of how glasses would make me look.  It was time to get over my biases for better—and safer—living.

All of us have biases. A bias is an inaccurate perception based on cultural viewpoints or personal experiences that often operates beneath our conscious thoughts. As one example, I have some cultural biases because I have experienced life as a white, middle-class, straight, American male. I am not afraid to go jogging by myself, whereas a black man may fear to run in certain neighborhoods, or a young woman to go on a trail by herself at twilight.  My culture and experiences have given me a lens to look at the world. Just as the imperfections of the eye may distort the world in front of us, so our biases influence the way we perceive the world.

In Matthew 14, the Gospel writer conveys important theological truths in a legendary story. The story involves the disciples caught in a strong windstorm at night on the Sea of Galilee. Through the dark they perceive a human figure striding above the waves, coming near. Maybe it was James who saw it first, or the fretful Thomas. “Hey, look over there. What is that?” Eyes strained against the dark from the pitching ship. “A spirit!” “You’re crazy- I don’t see anything but moonbeams on the waves.” “There it is again!” By now some were standing, shouting out in terror. Then came a great cry as Peter jumped over the side as if he was at the shore, leaving the confused sailors behind to fear whatever or whoever could walk on water. 

Let’s read between the lines of our Gospel. Each disciple reacted in ways that expressed their bias and background. That’s just like you and I would do. Peter had jumped overboard. What were the others thinking? We can speculate, can’t we?

John had the mind of an intellectual. He stayed close to Jesus and often asked the questions that brought deeper explanations. His brilliant mind would share with the church profound theology in the writing we call the Gospel of John. That night he may have thought, “What is the symbolism of walking on water? The Psalmist sang, ‘You rule over the surging sea, when its waves mount up, you still them.’ I need time to analyze the theology and discover the meaning so I can teach others.” This would demonstrate the Ostrich Effect Bias, where a person disregards information that causes emotional discomfort. John was terrified so he tuned out the vision of a ghost to rationalize the experience.

James, the brother of John, had grown up on this water. His practical mind was always filled with powerful energy, so much that Jesus nicknamed him one of the ‘sons of thunder.’ He held the rudder this night, an experienced sailor who knew how to guide the boat in bad conditions. In that moonlight night he said, ‘I’m taking control of this situation. I’ve been through the storm before. I’ll steer us away from this monster.” He could be under the illusion of the Normalcy Bias, that things will always function as they have before to avoid something bad. James that his normal action of steering in one direction could escape the threat of this ghost.

It's important to note that bias is ethically neutral. Bias is just simply a part of how we live as humans. Social scientists list more than 180 varieties of these mental filters. Some help us manage the flow of information in our brain or retain memories that help us survive. For example, the Optimism Bias helps us believe that we are at a lesser risk of negative events than other people. This might give me confidence that I could do my taxes without making a mistake, so I’ll try it. Without some optimism we would never undertake anything new. However, if I overplay the Optimism Bias by saying I don’t need a tax preparation app to help me, I might be in trouble in April.

Dealing with our biases requires a high degree of self-awareness. It’s interesting that most of us practice self-awareness about our physical appearance but not about our thinking. We instantly notice if the mirror shows a new wart or the scales signal too much weight. This may be important for us but how much more vital to do reflection on the why and wherefore of our mindset and behaviors.

A personal story serves as an example. One type of bias is an Implicit Stereotype. My Dad served in World War 2 and my parents were patriotic, so it would be natural for me to have pride when the “Star-Spangled Banner” is played. But this influence could turn negative if Dad had developed hatred of the Japanese who killed his buddies and filled my childhood mind with anti-Asian bigotry. He would be exhibiting an Implicit Stereotype, grouping all Asians with a small sample in another context.

If I followed his bias through my adult years, I would interpret any encounters with Asians according to my pre-existing beliefs. A story about Chinese criminal gangs operating would be remembered, while a conversation with a caring Japanese nurse would be disregarded. This would be a Confirmation Bias to disregard anything that contradicts my strongly held beliefs, perpetrating the bigotry. Obviously, I should find a way to un-bias my life for improved well-being. Thankfully, my Dad didn’t display any such bias to burden his life or mine.

Bias is a part of all our interactions. Some of you are being influenced by an Authority Bias at this moment, giving greater weight to the ideas of an authority, unrelated to the facts. I appreciate you paying attention to my degrees and professional licensing pay attention to me and Tracks for the Journey!

Now I want to take advantage of your Authority Bias by suggesting ways to un-bias your mindset.

First, stop the biases that aren’t working for your best life choices. A common bias that produces negative outcomes is the Overconfidence Bias, where confidence in one’s judgment is greater than the real accuracy of that judgment. A man named Lane always felt he could figure out which horse would win the race and placed his bet accordingly. He was a real student of the racing world and loved the excitement of the race. He was also in credit card debt up to his ears because of his huge betting losses. Lane must confront his Overconfidence Bias and hubris about his acumen in knowing horse races. The same bias can sabotage a person who feels he knows better than anyone else about politics, religion, or building a better mousetrap.

Second, we can un-bias our mindset by receiving ideas that come from others. A common bias is the Not Invented Here Bias. This simply means that if your group didn’t have the thought, it must be wrong. The only wisdom is from my tribe or identity group. This is on display when politicians declare that books must be wrong if they are written by an LBGTIA person, or if they tell the story of slavery, or discuss climate change caused by fossil fuels. The Not Invented Here Bias rejects out-of-hand these ideas since they might have emerged from so-called left-wing groups. There is no attempt to understand a new viewpoint or evaluate the evidence presented. This Bias is a tragic narrowing of vision that will impoverish life.

Returning to our speculations about the disciples facing the terrifying ghost, we think about Mary of Magdala, the disciple from the fishing village nearby, had been delivered by Jesus from the dark powers of confusion within. If she was on board that night, she might have thought the figure was a demon bringing destruction. Her Negativity Bias, to give greater focus on negative past experiences, might have frozen her with fear, unable to speak or help with the sails.

A final strategy to move beyond bias is taking a step back from the crowd. As a young religion student, my mentors taught that only my brand of Christianity was correct and all others defective to some degree. But when I moved beyond my home community, I discovered there were many faith traditions that had benefited humanity. Some had even practiced a more loving way of life or grasped truths my leaders missed entirely. It was time to examine my Bandwagon Bias. That bias focuses on how easy it is to adopt a concept if others have already done so. If everybody is doing it, I should jump on the bandwagon and do it too. This is the bias exploited by influencers in social media. But your mother gave some good advice when she said, “Just because everyone is doing it, doesn’t make it right.” The Bandwagon Bias may march us to the beat of a messed-up drummer and bring bad outcomes.

The disciples discovered how an encounter with Jesus can blow our biases out of the water! The Gospel writer wanted the church to grasp the power of God to meet the threats of a hostile world. Through this evocative midrash-style story, believers could find courage in the storm. My speculations about the biases of the disciples shows how our prejudices, distortions, and fears hinder out emotional health. Like the sailors learned in that anxious night, turning to Jesus can reveal our bias and call us to believe something greater than we ever expected. If we break through our biases, we may find the neighbor of another skin color is a friend, the migrant our example of hope, or the candidate a tempter stirring up lies and hate.

You’ll be glad to know that today I wear my glasses every waking minute. My doctor keeps track annually of how my vision is changing to keep me and my loved ones safe. I think all of us should keep track of our biases as well. We need to un-bias our mental filters to see the world more accurately. We would have greater well-being and relationships by avoiding the bandwagons, listening to the ideas of others, and having some humility about our own capabilities.

CITED

 Carmen Acton, “Are You Aware of Your Biases?” Harvard Business Review, February 4, 2022. https://hbr.org/2022/02/are-you-aware-of-your-biases

(Photo by StockSnap on pixabay.com)

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