The Almighty Bias

In American jurisprudence potential jurors are often asked if they can suspend bias and render a fair and impartial judgment. Most people answer yes and I believe that they believe they can. I also believe that most of them are wrong and the reason they don’t realize it is because they underestimate the strength and pervasiveness of bias in their thought processes.

Studies have shown that in keeping tat of tit for tat reciprocity (something we do without necessarily realizing we’re doing it), people are far more likely to remember when others don’t return our favors than we are to remember when we are ones who fail to do so. Simply put, if one of my friends borrows a sum of money and never returns it I am likely to remember it a year later, even if the sum is relatively small. If I borrow money and fail to return it, it is likely to drop out of my consciousness in about a month (I read the synopsis of just such a study but can’t remember where I got it from, just pretend I posted a link and you clicked on it).

The reason we remember the failures of others more than our own is because distinguishing between genuinely cooperative people and cheaters is conducive to evolutionary success. The most successful strategy is to cooperate with cooperators and to punish and/or avoid cheaters. Punishing our own shortcomings is not terribly conducive to anything so the human mind is strongly attuned to detecting wrong in others, less so in ourselves.

The point I’m driving at is that our confidence in being able to divine Truth from Falsehood is attenuated by personal bias, especially in instances where we ourselves are the object of moral scrutiny. This is why the father of the Texas man who attacked a police headquarters can honestly and indignantly ask “Where does a white man get help”. The idea of white males being a disenfranchised majority, while seemingly ridiculous to most American minorities, seems to be a self evident truth to many white people, especially to those on the lower rung of the economic ladder. Racial minorities, women, and now people in the LGBT community seemingly get all the extra protection and programs while white males are left to fend for themselves. Many, if not most, black Americans conversely take it as a self evident truth that black Americans have the odds stacked against them and have to work twice as hard as their white counterparts to achieve the same results.

Whites often accuse minorities of playing the race card when injustices occur, as if the statistics demonstrating racial disparities in sentencing and in police shootings of unarmed suspects is just a bunch of bellyaching about nothing. Shut your mouth, get on your face, take this unprovoked assault, and for God’s sake don’t make this thing out to be something racial. Similarly, when apparent police brutality happens to black suspects and turns out to be the result of actual legitimate provocation on the part of the suspect, many in the black community will continue to side with the bad guy as long as he is black, the facts notwithstanding, even if they would have not chosen to side with a similar suspect if he had happened to be white. All of this seems to occur in the throes of self deception that makes both sides incapable of pulling the mote out of their own collective eye.

Inherent bias and the pack mentality is not a white thing, it is not a black thing, it is a human thing. To be certain there are many people who can defy racial lines and side with members of the other side. This is either due to the fact that these are truly enlightened individuals who can cast off the mental shackles of the herd mentality or it is because they are shameless sellouts, depending on who you talk to.

Setting aside the issue of police shootings and race, this isn’t the point of this particular diatribe. My point is simply that the human tendency to cognitive dissonance, self deception, and bias is what makes us fall prey to the type of self righteous certitude that leads to moral outrage, intransigence, intolerance, demonizing of those on the other side, and ultimately to potential violence in promoting out own personalized version of Truth. This is why the angels of our better nature (a phrase I stole from Steven Pinker) also guide toward forgiveness and mercy. These are important because sometimes it is quite possible that the wrongs that we are ultimately willing to forgive might actually not have been wrongs at all. Perhaps we were unknowingly the culprits who were in the wrong in the first place but we did not realize it because we were led astray by our tendencies to cognitive dissonance, self deception, and bias.

3 Responses to “The Almighty Bias”

  1. Phelps says:

    Just as a point of order — bias is actually well understood in the trial consulting field, and if you have the advice of a good trial consultant, quite a lot of biases can be negated and the jury turned back to neutral. For example, simply pointing out to a jury, “my client is black, and I know that some people have some unconscious biases. I simply ask that when you deliberate, you don’t take his race into account, just like you would do for anyone else, and judge him solely on his actions.” The studies show that this simple statement fosters mindfulness in the jurors and virtually eliminates sentencing disparities.

    The Zimmerman defense was chided for using this technique — “some people want to make this out to be a black thing vs a white thing. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, your instructions are to judge Mr Zimmerman solely on his actions — that his attacker was black has nothing to do with this.” And it worked. It took any lingering racial bias out of the decision.

    It’s really discouraging for me to see the bias in the blogosphere though, especially from the white side. You have the situation with (mostly) white bikers in Waco, and there are plenty of blogs that will examine that with an entirely open mind, the idea that the police could have overreacted or even premeditated a setup on them. You look at the same blog on the cop shooting the black guy in the back in Carolina, and the cop manhandling a black teenage girl in a bikini in McKinney, and they bend over backwards to find some way to excuse the cop. It truly disgusts me.

    Badge sniffers are one thing, but these guys are perfectly willing to find the police at fault — with a white victim.

  2. Mexigogue says:

    You look at the same blog on the cop shooting the black guy in the back in Carolina, and the cop manhandling a black teenage girl in a bikini in McKinney, and they bend over backwards to find some way to excuse the cop. It truly disgusts me.

    Thank you Phelps. I think this was the gist of the concluding paragraph I meant to write. As much as I love trolling the comments section of news articles, the racist trolls ruin it for everybody.

  3. Citizen Quasar says:

    Black is beautiful.

    Tan is grand.

    And white is the color of the big boss man.

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