Did you ever wonder why two people with identical I.Q. education and upbringing can have totally different opinions about so many things?
For example, the editorial writers for the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, frequently interpret recent political events so differently, you sometimes wonder if they both live on the same planet.
About five years ago, I helped sponsor a symposium on prejudice and discrimination at the University of Wisconsin. The keynote speaker was Mahzarin R. Banaji, a professor of psychology at Harvard University, who is an expert on human thinking and feeling that operate instinctively and unconsciously in our mind with some emphasis on biases…to put her credentials in a nutshell. She maintains a web site called “Project Implicit,” which measures our biases in a number of areas, including gender, religion, skin tone, age, weight, etc. More than 6 million persons have completed the tests on the web site. In her speech, Professor Banaji claimed that all of us are afflicted with biases.
I had dinner with her that evening and asked if even Indian gurus had biases. After all, some of them spend years in a cave or other isolation meditating and staring at a wall, or whatever to clear their minds to be totally in the here and now. She replied that she had actually tested a number of gurus in India and all of them had at least two biases: one against the lower caste systems, the other against Pakistan.
So much for spending a lot of time in a cave.
Biases, as Professor Banaji pointed out, are not always bad and they may be conscious as well as unconscious. For example, we may have a conscience bias for healthy foods or for dogs as pets. We are well aware of our conscience biases for the most part. An unconscious, instinctive bias might be a racial bias. Even though we think we may have grown beyond such biases, in many instances what we really have done is learn to “manage” them, the key to working with our own irrational drives and feelings. And racial biases are grossly irrational, particularly since we’ve learned that our human DNA is not much different from a geranium’s.
There may be a genetic basis to our biases. The Minnesota Study of Identical Twins Reared Apart shows that about 50% of our mental characteristics are inherited. The study, among other things, has found identical twins who never knew each other and were interviewed as adults have such similarities as both chew gum, are liberals, alcoholics, divorced, gave their pets the same name, and on and on.
This doesn’t mean we are stuck with our biases. If they are negative and we become aware of them and want to change, then change is possible. However, biases can also vary considerably in strength—the weaker ones are naturally easier to change, the stronger ones are much more difficult. More on this later.
David L. Weiner (Chicago, IL) is considered an expert on the biology of human irrationality, much of which is motivated by sub-conscious instincts, some inherited, many shaped by our traumatoc experiences. He is the author of four popular psychology books, which he wrote with assistance from the University of Wisconsin's (Madison) Department of Psychology, number one in the nation in federal research awards received. Three of his books were psychology bestsellers: Battling the Inner Dummy: The Craziness of Apparently Normal People (also published in China, Spain and Latin America... and in Braille), Power Freaks: Dealing with Them in the Workplace or Anyplace, and Reality Check: What Your Mind Knows But Isn't Telling You. He is also the author of Brain Tricks: Coping with Your Defective Brain. www.braintricks.com