The Illusion of Objectivity
Seeing other people’s biases is pretty easy. Seeing our own is hard.
I’m well tuned to the ways society unfairly stereotypes and undervalues someone who looks like me. When someone acts in a way that reinforces biases against women, Black people, or older people—unintentionally or not—it’s obvious to me. I’ve been there.
And even when we’re not the target of a microaggression, most of us can learn to notice when others commit them.
But somehow, seeing our own biases isn’t easy at all.
Our brains are set up to believe we are reasonably objective. We tend to trust our own snap judgments; they help us survive in the world without being paralyzed by uncertainty. But that means that biases settle into our thought patterns over time. Eventually they look to our brains like facts.
Recognizing those patterns is uncomfortable and upsetting. That’s why most of us don’t want to admit that we could be biased—even while we congratulate ourselves for spotting bias in others.
As important as it is to say something if you observe someone causing harm, I think it’s also valuable (and likely more effective) to focus on ourselves. After all, we can’t control other people’s behavior or their learning process—just our own. This is particularly important for those in a position to have an impact in other people's lives, like police officers, managers, doctors, or teachers. We may or may not influence someone else, but we can directly prevent harm by doing our own inner work.
But how do we break the hold that the myth of objectivity has on us? That’s a lifelong struggle for me.
I try to practice and build my skills, so that I can spot my own biases more quickly. Three approaches have been helpful for me:
Look for red flags. When I find myself being surprised when I learn something about someone, that’s a tell. I was making an assumption, and assumptions indicate a bias might be at work. I’ve gotten better at pausing when I notice that feeling.
See your biases from the outside. The Implicit Association Test measures your reaction times to suggest where your unconscious views favor some groups over others. When I took the IAT for age, I revealed a preference for younger people—which surprised me since I’m biased against the group I’m in! But that was helpful info. Am I likely to give the benefit of the doubt to younger people? Can I use that knowledge to mitigate that bias in situations where I have some power?
Get a second opinion. We can hold each other accountable in a loving way. Ask a trusted friend to tell you when they notice any bias in you. It will be easier for them to spot than it is for you.
We’re always going to notice other people’s biases, but we can do more good by looking at our own. Standing in a place of judgment only reinforces the systemic biases at play.
Instead, let’s take care of our own stuff. As Vernā Myers likes to say, “Move boldly toward your biases.” They’re getting in the way of how we treat people. And if we don’t learn to see them, we can’t change them.
An embarrassing example: my kids were in elementary school when I recognized that I had a bias against people who are overweight. We were at a big amusement park. I started to notice how many fat people were at the park. My brain seized on the fact that they had supersized drinks and were eating fried food. I found myself forming a pattern that reinforced familiar stereotypes, making negative judgments about people I didn’t know at all. Lazy. Undisciplined. Bad judgment.
At least for a few moments—then other parts of my brain kicked in. I realized that the park didn’t allow any outside food. We don’t have any choice about what we eat here. They also make it really cheap to supersize drinks, so it makes economic sense to get a huge cup for an extra 50 cents. The pattern I saw wasn’t a reflection of their character; it was a reflection of a structural setup by the managers of the amusement park.
The worst I may have done that day was to shoot my fellow park-goers a frowning glance. But if I were in a position of making decisions about one of them, like considering them for a job, I probably would have eliminated them based on that bias. After all, it seemed like an objective fact to me.
The realization came relatively quickly. But I still had the bias, and I was ashamed. You’d think I would be able to tap into some empathy—I know from experience that it’s not easy to control your body size, and it gets harder the older you get. And yet the millions of messages I’ve received from others and the media came to mind first, and I had to deliberately dislodge them.
In that instance, I noticed when I was making an assumption. But I know I don’t always catch it.