What’s Your Bias?

November 23, 2020

In the Alfred Hitchcock classic Rear Window Jimmy Stewart plays Jeff, a photographer confined to bed with a broken leg, who spends his days looking out the window onto a courtyard. Amused and bemused, he observes his neighbors, witnessing various displays of behavior from silly to unseemly, eventually using his observations to solve a murder. (It is a great movie if you are looking for something to watch.)

During the pandemic, I feel a certain kinship with Stewart’s character, as I, amused and bemused, look out at the world through the window provided by my computer screen. I’ve witnessed reactions to COVID-19, the outrage over the murder of George Floyd, and the polarization of the American people during a contentious presidential election.

My observations led me to ask questions of myself, and to a sudden awareness of the personal and societal biases that have shaped my beliefs and my life.

I checked Merriam-Webster to make sure I understood the nuance of the word, and was surprised to learn that bias is “an inclination of temperament or outlook especially: a personal and sometimes unreasoned judgment: PREJUDICE.” I had always considered bias to have a negative connotation, but this definition is more neutral.

Human beings are undoubtedly born with inclinations, and the mores and preferences of our parents and society combine with those inclinations into a set of personal beliefs that automatically govern individual behavior. This, in turn, becomes biological programming, allowing us to move efficiently through the world.

Without biases, we would quickly become paralyzed, overwhelmed with information. Our programming makes decisions for us so that we don’t even have to think about our preferences anymore. It is perfectly normal to be biased in favor of yourself, but biases become a problem when they limit or inhibit the freedoms of other people, especially because we are usually unaware that we are biased.

Just as Jeff solved a mystery through the power of his observation, I am examining the puzzle of my own personality, using various techniques to unpack my biases in favor of creating stronger, more diverse relationships.

When you discover one of the biases that is limiting you (and everyone has negative biases, so you will find them), here are some techniques that may help you unravel them:

Own it with honesty, vulnerability, courage, and curiosity
Practice active listening skills in all conversations. What do you notice about the other person from this perspective?
Ask yourself, “What are three things I cannot know about the other person just by looking at him or her?”
Seek out thoughtful opinions and perspectives from people of backgrounds and experiences different from yours. Ask, “How much am I like them?”

Becoming comfortable with examining personal bias is, in itself, a skill, one that grows the more it is practiced with patience and commitment. As a species, we have the unique ability to recognize our limitations. Our ingenuity lies in the capacity to design a plan to grow beyond them.