Overcoming Bias and Intolerance


In a study published in Psychological Science, it was found that the human brain categorises people within the first second of seeing a face. Within the first second! That means within a second of seeing someone new we have already established if they are a part of “us” or “them”. Most often the first form of categorising is by race; even three-month-old babies show a preference for people of their own race.

In categorising people, we also assign them preconceptions we associate with that specific category. For example, we might assign an overweight person trait such as ‘lazy’, ‘greedy’ or ‘less intelligent’. We don’t stop to think that maybe that obese person is battling a medical condition, or they are genetically predisposed to being fat. A woman in a male-dominated field might find herself being stereotyped as ‘less capable’ than her male counterparts. As we go through our daily lives, we constantly assign such preconceptions to people we come across, either consciously or subconsciously. We all have these biases, lurking just beneath the surface, and insidiously influencing our decisions and actions.

Recently, thanks to cases of police violence on black people in America and the resulting protests, Americans and the world at large have found themselves having to confront deep-rooted racial biases. It is high time for everyone to take the opportunity to assess their attitudes and beliefs towards one another especially when it comes to harmful unconscious biases.

Nature of Bias

A 2012 study by the University of Oxford found that the human brain might be hard-wired to form and act on preconceptions we may not even know we have. In the study, subjects who were given a Propranolol (a drug used to treat heart conditions), had reduced racial bias. Why? Because the drug limited fear response in the amygdala (the part of the brain which detects threats in the environment). Research has shown that the amygdala responds in milliseconds- before you’ve even had a chance to consciously process a situation. Basically, the amygdala is a snap-judgement centre which acts on unconscious biases. These stereotypes and biases are often instilled by family, peers and the society before we even reach the cognitive developmental stage of being able to question their validity. At some point in evolution, knee-jerk bias-based decisions ensured survival, protecting us from people who might pose threats because they weren’t part of our group. However, in the modern world where people from all walks of life live and work side by side, implicit biases can be a hindrance.

Although neural responses are automatic and unconscious, we still can make a conscious effort on how to act on them. The following guide will help you overcome your unconscious and hidden biases. Acknowledge Bias

The first step is to acknowledge that bias exists instead of pretending that only other people are biased. This a humbling exercise which will force you to confront your prejudices and step out of your comfort zone to understand how your unconscious bias might be affecting people around you.

Researchers have found that while the brain might be wired for negative bias, it is also conditioned for cooperation and fairness. The neocortex part of the brain, which researchers refer to as “the higher mind”, works to finetune behaviour and override initial impulses. This proves that while it can be extremely difficult to control implicit impulses, we can reshape our implicit attitudes and beliefs.

Adjust Your Attitude

In the same way an alcoholic learns to forego their favourite drink for fruit juice, you can conquer unconscious bias by consciously choosing to be fair. For example, whenever you find yourself cringing from a person of a different race, check yourself. Ask yourself why you are reacting that way and if there is any evidence to support your negative reaction.

Also, change the kind of words you associate with a particular group. You can start by lowering the intensity of the negative words you use or change them to positive words. For example, when you see an old person you can think to yourself “It’s such a blessing to get to such an old age. I’m sure she has such stories to tell!” instead of immediately thinking, “Old people are disgusting”.

Have Diverse Interactions

The most effective way of overcoming bias and intolerance is by interacting with diverse groups of people. Get out of your comfort zone and make an effort to meet people from all walks of life. You can achieve this by travelling, joining groups, and even volunteering at charity events. You might be pleasantly surprised to find that your bias was totally unjustified, and you might even end up making new friends!

While interacting with people you have a negative bias towards, intentionally look for the humanity in them. They also have feelings, thoughts and dreams. While researching bias, Dr Susan Fiske found that asking people to consider what kind of vegetable a homeless person or a drug addict might like reduced the disgust reaction in the brain. According to Dr Fiske, when you consider a person’s goals and needs, you activate the social cognition part of the brain and therefore, are more likely to overcome bias.

Also remind yourself that everyone is a product of their history and cultural context, and this explains the differences in their worldviews and behaviour.

Develop Personal Guiding Principles

Do you have a system on how to interact with everyone? If not, it’s time to develop one. Guiding principles are basic ways you commit to “act” in your life. Along with your values, they can determine who you are and how you interact with the world around you. In your guiding principles, include guidelines on how to treat the people around you with fairness and compassion. You should also consider adopting the golden rule, which says “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

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