Biased? Blame The Brain

Eleven Million Bits

It has been estimated that our brains are capable of processing approximately 11 million bits of information every second. Given this, it’s not surprising that this complex organ has been created to process information efficiently. Many of us would say, perhaps adamantly, that we do not have biased thoughts that perpetuate social injustice. However, according to scientific research, we all do. And, it is the complexity of the brain, and the amount of information we need to process it, that is partly to blame.

During the campaign the New York Times   published an article outlining Mike Pence’s comments about bias, and the author Emily Badger had this to say, “The science of how submerged bias affects our actions is still a work in progress; studies have found a link between the biases and specific actions in some situations but not others. But because this bias is a function of universal human psychology, researchers say, we all experience it — and you can’t exactly get “rid” of it.”

The system in our brain that helps us make uncontrolled and automatic associations between two concepts quickly is necessary for normal human functioning. Let’s call it system A, the part of our brain that works outside of our conscious awareness. Quick and efficient, system A is set on “automatic.” For example, when you are sitting a red light, and it turns to green, you proceed without thinking about it because of previous connections the system has made.

The second processing system, system B, is more conscious and works more slowly. It’s what we use for mental tasks that require concentration and thoughtful effort.

System A is a healthy human adaptation, a mental tool that helps us navigate this complex world. However, it is also where the dark force of implicit bias thrives.

Where Bias Thrives

In the shadows, outside of our conscious thoughts, system A may be busy making connections that are unhealthy. For instance, if we’ve seen security footage of a teenager with a hoodie pulled up over his head robbing a convenience store, does the brain fuse a connection between teens in hoodies and criminal activity? This type of thing can get processed and established before we even know it consciously, and become a default “system A” assumption.

Bias in the classroom, especially in highly diverse or impoverished neighborhoods, is particularly damaging if it leads educators to have lowered expectations for their students, or create assumptions about family involvement that are not true. Assumptions about student ability to grapple with a complex text, for instance, can be a fulfilling prophesy if the teacher avoids giving them a chance to work with it based on that assumption.

Even those of us who are angry and upset by inequality and unfairness have an undercurrent of bias that may run counter to our stated values. What’s important, according to the article, is that we recognize when our values are competing with unconscious stereotypes and take steps to make sure that our stated values override them. We need to transfer our thinking about others from system A to system B.

It takes some effort. Open dialogue with those we harbor biases against can go a long way toward forming new associations in our thought patterns. And, it’s critical that we have these conversations. If we don’t, we are in danger of losing our ability as humans to confront racial disparities without bringing individual character into question. And, that’s not a loss we can afford.

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