The Mental Shortcut

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Everyone has biases, and most biased thinking (stereotypes) doesn’t stem from a place of negative intent. More often than not, there’s a deep seated, unconscious stereotype, that’s been formed as a result of the different circumstances we’ve been exposed to, and how these have implicitly influenced us and we’ve had no control over. Implicit or unconscious bias is the act of judging people based on our beliefs and  feelings. We make very quick decisions and ‘assessments’ based on our background, personal experiences and culture. This happens almost without us realising it. Our brains have so much information to process, and complex sometimes, so this is a way of handling this barrage of material.

Biases may be formed when we’re very young. A research study manifested this when it asked young children to guess whether a ‘really, really smart’ protagonist in a story was a man or a woman. At the age of six, girls were less likely to guess that this was a woman, than boys were to guess that it was a man ! Fast forward to the workplace where we’ve all heard the phrases about women, such as the mommy track, the glass ceiling, the gender pay gap, like a girl, etc, etc….People are increasingly looking at implicit bias to explain why progress hasn’t been as fast and furious as one would like it to be….especially in the arena of gender equality.

At some time or other, we’ve all been victims of this…unfortunately it impacts our actions in daily life. A female friend related an incident, while travelling abroad for her annual vacation. While initial announcements were being made as her flight was taking off, she heard the air hostess announce women’s names for the pilot, the co-pilot and the flight engineer. The operating crew were a team of women ! I would have felt elated and proud….my friend did not ! Her first reaction was, “Oh no, all women !” This woman, my friend, has a Masters in Economics and is very “liberated”, to say the least, and yet, she was caught in her own bias. So being of high intellect and of an otherwise “free thinking” nature has nothing to do with the way we think ! The difference between those who “know better” and those who do not, is that we catch ourselves out, know where we’ve gone wrong , treat this as a learning experience and hope and pray that we don’t repeat the error of our ways. I have to wonder then, should we be blaming people, so steeped in cultural or historical bias and dogmatic ways, of having stereotypes ?

Another glaring example of this is often noticed in the corporate world where the educational qualification requirement of candidates may differ. In one organisation, it was apparent that most of the male trainers’ highest degrees were a masters, whereas all of the female trainers had a PhD ! Why the disparity ?  The CEO explained that audiences rated men higher  than women, and the higher degree amongst the women, “balanced the equation “ !

Most of us would like to think we’re ethical people. In the Harvard Review,  Mahzarin Banaji says, “We imagine we are good decision makers, able to objectively size up a job candidate and reach a fair and rational conclusion, that’s in our and our company’s best interest.” However, after two decades and a lot of compelling research later, we’re forced to admit that, in reality, we fall short of our inflated self perceptions. And so, our decisions are based on our biases in several ways. It affects our perceptions of people and reality; it affects our attitudes and reactions to certain people; it affects which aspects of a person we are attentive to; it affects what we listen to, and so on and so forth.

At an organisational level, biases can be effectively tackled by making the unconscious, conscious, in the form of conduct training sessions that facilitate open discussions, and let employees know that they will be held accountable for “jumping to conclusions”. In day to day life, where there are less controls and minimal accountability, we have to exert more self control, and actively fight the urge to automatically “leap before we look (or rather, think)”.

By Scherezade Mansukhani

Scherezade Mansukhani

Scherezade is a Clinical Child Psychologist, Part-time mother, blogger, French teacher and IATA teacher. She has worked with the differently abled, and now works on and off as a teacher.

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