What No One Ever Told You About Your Blind Spot

Here's what no one ever told you about your blind spot.

We all have one.

It's not abnormal.  It doesn't make you a bad person.  And there's no avoiding it. 

Have you heard of something called implicit bias?  Or implicit attitude? 

See if you get this right.  

A father and his son are in a car accident. The father dies at the scene and the son, badly injured, is rushed to the hospital. In the operating room, the surgeon looks at the boy and says, “I can't operate on this boy. He is my son.  

How can this be?


The surgeon is the boy's mother.  

Did you get the right answer?

I DID NOT.  Being a feminist, I did the big "AAAAARGGHHH, I cannot believe I got that wrong!"

But this is how implicit bias works.  Our mind creates associations based on what we learn as we grow up, and it makes assumptions based on those associations.  

We cannot help but be influenced by our culture, and given that in the past most surgeons have been male, our mind has created that association and works off it, even though things have changed.

We also create associations based on race, weight, age and all sorts of other things:

Science/Math/Medicine/Engineering/Building/Mechanics/Pilots/Farmers = male
Nursing/Teaching/Nurturing = female
Non-whites/foreigners = dangerous or different/unknown
Elderly = Feeble/Past Prime
Fat = unfit/undesirable
Dirty = undesirable
Tattoos = unreliable, drugs, hippie, army, sailor
Addicted to a substance = unable to help themselves, no self-control
Mental health issue = sick, weak

Feeling uncomfortable yet?  These are hard things to face.  Really hard.  We're good people, right?  

I choose to believe we are.  Most of us are not consciously racist, or biased, nor do we wish to hold judgment against anyone else.  Of course there are those that hold these types of beliefs consciously, and we can see that playing out in the media.  But I'm not focusing on that particular sector in this discussion, and more and more I find it less useful to spend my time and energy focusing on that sector.

It's not a good representation of where we can go.  

But in either case - we are all a product of our culture - and so we probably do hold some of these unconscious biases.

Mahzarin Banaji, PhD (Harvard) and co-author of Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People, is currently doing studies on Air B&B and how implicit bias may be playing out.  Your home, your castle.  You want honest, safe people in your home, of course.

But you also want to be a fair and good person, ensuring that you don't discriminate against anyone unfairly.

Do you think Mahzarin's name would be more or less likely to be chosen?  Turns out it is less. However, when you consider that her email ends with harvard.edu, suddenly she becomes a wonderful and safe guest. (Interview, On Being)


On the side of the road, would you be more likely to stop and help an elderly, feeble woman, or a bearded, tattooed man smoking a cigarette?  

Common sense, you say.  Statistically, we know that bearded, tattooed men that smoke are more dangerous than elderly, feeble women.  

Do we know that? Maybe. We live within a certain reality.  When I pick up hitchhikers (there are a lot of young people that travel in and out of Queenstown on a budget), if my kids are in the car, I only pick up women.  I hold a bias (conscious and unconscious) that it is less safe to pick up men.  

Is this true or not?  I don't know.  Statistics would say yes.  But how much am I actually relying on statistics in that split second in which I make the decision whether or not to pull over?  Not much. I'm relying on bias (and also intuition which is another important discussion). 

We are constantly making these assessments. Common sense is good.  Statistics are good. Intuition is good.

But it is also very important that we take the time to examine what comprises our view of reality. Because reality is not always the truth.  

Here are a few ways to go about changing the implicit biases we hold about ourselves, and about others.

Positive Imagery:
Expose yourself to positive imagery - imagery that upsets the bias you grew up with. Upworthy is great, as is A Mighty Girl, and Huffington Post. 

Positive Role Models:
Find positive role models, and BE a positive role model.  If you think you can't or shouldn't do something because of your background, gender, or culture, then start telling yourself right now that you have the same right to do it as anyone else.

Question Your Assumptions: 
If you find yourself making a decision based on what might be an implicit bias, take a moment to consider where this might be stemming from.  

Commit to Doing Your Part:
First, we must work toward finding love for each and every part of ourselves.  Decreasing judgment of ourselves is the quickest and most effective way to ensure we are not judging others.  

Take the Test:
If you would like to take a test to question your implicit biases you can find it at Project Implicit. It's fascinating stuff!