The Bias In Your Brain

Words: Ru Brooks

The human brain is a pretty impressive thing. We are bombarded by an avalanche of information every second of every day, so much so that we couldn’t possibly process it all consciously. By evolving to manage certain information unconsciously, our brains became able to make life-saving decisions at lightning speed.

Our ancestors needed to react instantly if a bear emerged from the woods, so they learned to make snap decisions based on incomplete information. They couldn’t afford to wait and confirm the danger…a rustle in the bushes and an ominous shape were enough for the brain to do its work. Rustle + shape = bear + RUN, just in case.

The more we get desirable results (i.e. safety) by associating things with other things, the stronger those associations will be and the more likely we are to deploy them in future scenarios. Now, this is great when it’s saving us from bears, but it can also lead us to make assumptions about other people when we are exposed to misleading associations. If we’re not careful, discrimination and prejudice soon follow.

Modern Western society has done a great job of hammering deceiving associations into us to the point that we all tend to unconsciously lean into the dominant narrative that favours white men over everyone else. I bet that if I asked you to name a musician, or a famous actor, or a cartoon character, the vast majority of you would respond with white/male figures. In fact, I did do exactly that:

Don’t worry, it isn’t your fault; it’s simply more efficient for our brains to look for easily accessible information when we need to make quick decisions, and because the entertainment/sports industries and political landscape overwhelmingly represent white male bodies, our brains generally reach for things that fit that description.

This 2017 study uses the term concept accessibility to describe how we tend to assume information that is easily available in a given situation. Apple, banana, pear…now if I say fr***, you can probably fill in the missing letters because the concept has been made accessible by your unconscious mind. This demonstrates how our brains categorise information to make certain concepts available in a context. In this way, a society steeped in inequality makes associated stereotypes more ‘accessible’ to us, therefore rendering them more likely to be expressed and repeated.

We absorb our prejudices from society and feed them back in collectively. How do we break this cycle? Managing our individual implicit biases is a good idea, but it would only be short-lived: if we solely mitigate our personal biases, we are fighting a constant, losing battle as society’s inertial prejudice will only tug us back in its direction. In that case, a logical solution could be to make social stereotypes less accessible to our brains. The more we see women in positions of power, for example, the stronger our unconscious association between ‘women’ and ‘leaders’ will become and the less accessible the contending stereotype would be. Furthermore, increasing the amount of underrepresented demographics in decision-making roles across society could gradually lead to a reimagining of social structure, designed collaboratively by (and for) each contributing demographic and reducing accessibility to the stereotypes that vilify them.

It’s a long road that will span generations, but assuming that bias lies most stubbornly in our systems and not in us as individuals gives our mission a focal point. We don’t need to fix ourselves as much as we need to fix the social structure at large: if our environment isn’t constantly radiating bias at us, we are far less likely to absorb it. Admittedly, large-scale social change sounds daunting (and yes, it is), but a calculation emerges when we recognise how concept accessibility operates, and I will use this website as an example to demonstrate.

Dynamics celebrates female, female-identifying and non-binary artists in bass music, effectively shining a spotlight on typically underrepresented demographics. This should be seen as an increase in visibility that draws attention to the fact that members of these demographics are here and are contributing to this scene as well as men. It is an attempt to incorporate ‘female’ and ‘non-binary’ bodies into the list of accessible concepts that our unconscious brains can draw from when we imagine ‘DJs’ or ‘music producers’. It will not happen overnight, but this is a stark and concerted effort towards a hopeful future where this small corner of the music industry represents true and unanimous equality.

It is a baby step, but it is an acknowledgement of one of the issues that we face today. Combine other similar projects, each tackling different parts of the broader social problem (which I will reductively call ‘inequality’), keep them up over time and we may see the story shift. In the meantime, mitigating our individual implicit biases surely can’t hurt. To do this, we could try to shift our guiltily biased unconscious thought processes into the conscious.

Nobel prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman describes two systems of thought in his 2011 book Thinking Fast And Slow: System 1 (fast, automatic, unconscious) and System 2 (slow, analytical, conscious). It is of course System 1 that is responsible for the biased assumptions we make, and it is System 2 that leaps into action when we need to concentrate or work something out. We tend to act with bias when we feel rushed or threatened, so simply slowing down the process of decision making could help us act more rationally. A recruiting officer interviewing a candidate for a job might unconsciously associate them with previously encountered people or concepts that System 1 procures. It’s fast and saves mental capacity, but it fails to take the candidate into account as a unique individual. System 2 is less susceptible to unconscious bias, so using it to concentrate on the candidate’s unique qualities (as opposed to assuming information about them) would likely lead to a more rational and fair decision. Just being aware that unconscious biases are always at work could also help us identify when System 1 is behind the wheel.

Similarly, next time you’re asked “are there any sick new producers I should be looking out for?”, instead of letting System 1 run the show, slow down and really think about whether you want to further reinforce male-dominated representation. The website where you read these very words features an extensive database of artists outside of the ‘male’ archetype, so go and acquaint yourself.

I confess, it is difficult for us to think against the grain of our unconscious. It will require a bit of cognitive effort to overcome the well-oiled autonomy of System 1, but there is a social imbalance in our world that cannot be ignored any longer, an imbalance propagated by the biases we absorb and implicitly radiate. In a future where social stereotypes are less accessible to our brains, it will be easier for our unconscious to operate in a way that doesn’t pluck prejudice out of thin air. We have to work today and make those awkward first steps. Let us consciously bring the issues to the surface and hopefully, in future, we won’t even need to think about it.

For the nerds:

Daniel Kahneman (2011) Thinking Fast And Slow. London: Penguin Books Ltd.

B. Keith Payne, Heidi A. Vuletich & Kristjen B. Lundberg (2017) The Bias of Crowds: How Implicit Bias Bridges Personal and Systemic Prejudice. Psychological Inquiry. 28:4, pp. 233-248.

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