Unconscious and Implied Biases
My morning commute to work is always interesting. It is about one hour ride to get to my workplace and I utilize that time to read newspapers, and to observe the commuter culture. Subway at that time is packed with commuters, a nonchalant crowd of young and old, school kids, office workers, and occasional street people. It is an eclectic mixture of people of all ethnicity, and lifestyles. The crowd is usually quiet, and many sit there lost in their own worlds: napping, listening to music, reading, or fiddling with their digital gadgets. Yet, some others just stare obliviously into nothingness. Sights, sounds, and smell vary according to the season.
This particular morning, as the crowd thickened, loud music streamed out of someone’s earphones annoying fellow travelers nearby. It sounded like Gangsta rap. I looked around, so did many others, curiously to find the source of the noise. There was an assortment of people of hyphenated nationals of different ethnic origins. I saw many young and old plugged into music. As I was not sure about the source of the music, I looked around repeatedly trying to locate the culprit. I tried to figure it out in my mind as I keenly searched for obvious signs, but I could not pinpoint the origin as many people had earphone plugged in. Finally, I found one person that fit the bill, and thus I made up my mind.
These days we are exposed huge amounts of creative, manipulative, and suggestive, advertisements via multiple media sources. Marketing companies utilize various tools and media formats to create brand awareness and sell their wares. Optics plays a role in many of the decisions we make: decisions on what to wear, eat, buy, as our senses are enticed by the first impressions. Thus, we become conditioned to prejudge certain products and recognize certain brand names without knowing the contents or verifying the validity of the claims. Generally, these decisions are harmless.
However, at other times such decisions can be problematic with major consequences. For example, we see and hear about police searches, seizures, and arrests based on racial stereotypes and profiles. These incidents, many times, alter the normalcy of lives of individuals and communities, thus have enormous implications for race relations. They affect the morale of a race, and they, in fact, weaken the moral fiber of the whole society. We have seen many examples of race-related prejudicial incidents in the U.S right after the tragic 9/11 events.
We make multitudes of decisions, from simple, silly, strategic to complex ones, dealing with a host of issues constantly at all times. Often we make an educated decision after analyzing the situation and learning more about it. Other times we jump into conclusions based on certain physical aspects, and appearances. Such decisions are part of the subtle feelings that are entrenched in our subconscious minds. These implied biases, according to the Kirwan Institute, ‘are activated involuntarily and without an individual’s awareness or intentional control’. They are formed not out of reality, but out of our perceptions, ‘feelings, inclinations and make-believe facts’. We tend to make rash decisions unknowingly based on those stored biases. The cause and effect of such rash judgment may result in not so desirable outcomes.
The crux of the matter is, we do make arbitrary decisions, and prejudge situations based on certain stereotypical assumptions that are inbuilt and sometimes acquired. No matter how much we have evolved in the diversity-tolerance-equality totem pole, we tend to judge others based on our likes and dislikes. Sometimes ideology and rational perspective disappear and we make judgment calls based on visible markings and ‘gut feelings’.
As I exited the train, I realized the real culprit: he was not at all the one I initially thought or suspected. My judgment was somehow clouded and it was solely based on certain stereotypical notions such as physical attributes and mannerisms. Somehow, those notions were inherent in me in an unconscious way. Even though I constantly strive to rid of biases, I sadly failed in this instance.
Author and journalist Annie Murphy Paul stated the obvious fact, “Psychologists once believed that only bigoted people used stereotypes. Now the study of unconscious bias is revealing the unsettling truth: We all use stereotypes, all the time, without knowing it. We have met the enemy of equality, and the enemy is us.” Yes, indeed I jeopardized my own sensible thinking with a type of preconceived notion that was hidden in me.
(The author, a technology professional, resides in Toronto, Canada with his family)