Brains, Bias, and Bigotry

I remember the first time I ever felt afraid during turbulence on an airplane.  My first child had been born a few months prior, and despite having flown many times without any reaction to turbulence before, it was like a switch had been thrown in my brain, and all of sudden I was terrified that my plane would just fall out of the sky.  I gripped the armrests, feeling confused on top of being afraid.  Why couldn’t my rational mind, fully aware of the fact that flying is statistically far safer than driving in a car, get on top of my emotions?  I went through the physics of airplane flight, reminding myself of the immutable scientific principles keeping our plane aloft…but it didn’t help.  Since then, I have returned to feeling calmer during turbulent flights, but never quite to the state of complete confidence that I had taken for granted before becoming a parent.

I tell this story because it illustrates a powerful truth about human brains – they are not designed for purely rational decision-making.  That’s because running a human brain takes an enormous amount of energy, and evolution doesn’t “care” about my ability to perfectly comprehend the statistical computations I’d need to judge whether planes or cars are safer.  Instead, it uses shortcuts, and has appropriately tuned my brain to have a healthy fear of falling from a high place.  These shortcuts are called “heuristics” by those who study minds and brains, and they are enormously important for understanding human behavior, particularly the biases underlying prejudice and racism.

The basic premise is that we are built to over-apply broad characterizations to those with whom we do not identify (oh, that’s a person with green eyes, so that means they insert stereotype here).  These rules of thumb might actually have been useful at some point in our evolutionary history, but they are trouble now.

The antidote is to first acknowledge that to be human is to be built with bias, and then to intentionally figure out how to meaningfully encounter people you don’t identify with.    Meaningful encounters may be pretty uncomfortable at first, particularly if the person you are encountering has beliefs, norms, or values that are directly opposed to your own.  When you think about your regular daily experience, how often do you engage in an encounter with someone whose viewpoints make you uncomfortable?

One reason I value the education students at Gesher receive is that it offers them precious opportunities to practice the skills needed for productive encounters in a safe space.  It is not only good but crucial for our children to understand how to engage in such experiences, so that they have the tools they need to intentionally learn about themselves and about others as they grow.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom,