Decidedly Academic. Distinctively Christian.
Written by Ebenezer Puplampu, HR Practitioner and Adjunct Professor of Industrial and Organizational Psychology
‘Bias’ is one word nobody likes to be associated with because it typically carries a negative connotation. One of my favorite things to do when I interact with people regarding the subject of ‘bias’ is to ask whether bias is a bad thing? I almost always get the ‘duh’ reaction – as if to say everybody knows that bias is a bad thing. Really? Is bias a bad thing? To answer that question, we will need to first understand a few basic stuff like, what bias really is, where it comes from and who can be biased?
To begin with, bias is basically the expression of our preferences. In other words, every time we choose to drink coffee and not tea, decide to eat carnitas and not chicken or wear shorts and not trousers, we are expressing our bias. Experts who study human behavior say that we develop bias and preference from a combination of our biology, how we are brought up and socialized, and the experiences we have in life. So for example, we all know people who do not eat anything that contains dairy products because they are lactose intolerant. As a result, they will prefer almond milk with their coffee instead of dairy cream. There are others who just do not like the way dairy milk tastes and so would prefer coconut milk because that’s what they grew up drinking.
From the few examples above of how we express our biases/preferences, we can see that bias is as much a part of our life as the air we breathe. That just means that every human being who thinks and makes choices has and expresses bias. It is important to also note at this point that, not all bias is visible. Some biases are hidden, in that we are not aware they exist in us – but they do. These hidden biases are those that reside in our subconscious as a result of accumulated experiences we have had in our lives, and they influence, shape and inform our behavior and decisions on a daily basis. Have you ever wondered why you will always choose to sit with someone you know over a total a stranger, or opt to ask for directions from a woman and not a man? The explanation may be in the influence that hidden biases have on us. So as you can see, biases are a regular part of our everyday lives, and in and of themselves, they are normal and good, because, without them, we could not function.
However, like any good thing, bias can go bad. The million dollar question then is, how can such a good and normal thing like bias, without which we cannot function as human beings, become a bad thing? The examples we have discussed so far are about our bias regards things like coffee, tea, shorts, trousers etc. None of this stuff has feelings, so when we prefer tea over coffee, coffee does not become sad. Bias, however, becomes dangerous when it turns into prejudice – that is when, based on our experiences, upbringing etc., we make preconceived judgements and conclusions about a person or a group of individuals that negatively affects their well-being. Prejudice, which essentially is “bias gone wrong”, can also be visible or hidden, and always has a negative impact – on the one who is prejudiced, those towards whom the prejudice is directed and society as a whole. The effect can range from hurting people’s emotions and feelings to actually endangering their very existence.
When prejudice is not checked, it can degenerate into bigotry, which is a stronger form of prejudice and is often accompanied by a severe mindset that produces discriminatory behavior like bullying. So any human being, actually, has the potential to become a bigot or a bully, because all it takes, is to let our biases become prejudice and leave them unchecked. It will quickly go south from there, and once on that slippery slope, it will degenerate quickly.
I have heard people ask several times, why bias goes wrong? The answer lies in the core of our nature. Human beings by nature are selfish and self-centered. That is why even as babies, we demonstrate our selfishness by refusing to share our toys. It is something which is part of our nature. So unless our upbringing/socialization/education is directed towards teaching us to love and care for others, we can degenerate fast, and even more quickly when those things feed our negative prejudices. By love and care, I am not referring to that which emanates from our natural self. We already made the point above that by nature, all human beings are selfish, and so we are incapable of producing love and care that is devoid of selfishness. It, therefore, takes the love of Jesus to reorient our selfish nature and enable us to truly love and care for others. This love and care that emanates from the Gospel is our only hope for both loving and caring for ourselves in the here and now as well as for the hereafter.
So my friends, next time you think of what a bigot or a bully could look like, look in the mirror. Because we all have biases and we are all at risk of becoming prejudiced, and unchecked prejudice is all it takes to become a bigot and a bully. Love, the love that originates from Jesus, is the answer.
Do you have that love?