Bias explained and it is not (just) what you think

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Emotions have a much influence on what we believe to be facts and truth than most of us realize. I demonstrate this during the workshop “Did you see the cow?” about emotional competence and how our our preferences, emotions and even bias determine what we perceive as right and wrong.

When I speak about the wonderful smell of freshly brewed coffee in the morning and that beautiful moment when the smell reaches your nostrils, the coffee lovers will join me in celebrating the beauty of that moment. Some of us will even remember that smell and that memory can be so intense that you actually smell it although there is no freshly brewed coffee nearby.

The tea lovers among us will most likely not be able to relate to the ecstasy of smelling freshly brewed coffee in the morning. Some of them might even experience the dwelling on the beauty of that smell as something negative. Objectively speaking, freshly brewed coffee has a rather penetrating smell and it only gets worse when the coffee gets old. You have to like to like it, and when you don’t like, well, you don’t. Our preference influences how we respond to it. When we like coffee, we agree that the smell of freshly brewed coffee is great. And when we don’t like coffee, we disagree. True or false is influenced by our preference, not always just by facts.

Let’s take it up one notch. Imagine that I speak about the wonderful sweet taste of lemons in the same way like I speak about the wonderful smell of freshly brewed coffee in the morning. You can like or dislike the taste of lemons but your brain will give you a very clear message when I speak about the sweet taste of lemons. Lemons are not sweet, lemons are sour and everyone knows that. The longer I talk about lemons being sweet, your brain will respond more to it and remind you of the sour taste of lemons. Just like with coffee, some might even be reminded of the actual taste of lemons and get a sour taste in their mouth.

What does this have to do with bias? Everything! The example of coffee demonstrates bias based on preferences. When you like coffee, you immediately start to confirm my appraisal of its smell in the morning. And when you don’t like coffee, you will start to disagree with me. The bias in this is that human beings tend to dislike something when they like something else and visa versa. Take chocolate for example. Chocolate comes in many variations and most people who prefer dark bitter chocolate do not appreciate the sweeter light variations. But such preferences can change over time and so can preference based biases.

A much more persistent kind of bias is demonstrated by the example of the lemons and the claim that lemons taste sweet, and even more so by the way we all respond to that. This kind of bias is conditioned bias. It is not just the fact that you have the experience of the taste, you also have the experience of the color. Most people are not aware that they associate the color yellow with the taste sour. Even less people are aware that they associate the surface structure of a lemon with a sour taste. The sour taste of lemons can provoke a negative response to everything we identify with the taste of lemons. Most marketing experts know that however, and that is why they avoid using the color and the surface structure of lemons when they want express something positive, and amplify it when they want to provoke aversion for something.

And yet we use lemons and their taste for our pleasure. Almost exploding with healthy vitamins, we use them in drinks and shakes. They give that extra kick to salads and a lot of other food. Without giving any kind of negative response like it does when we think of just the taste of lemon. That is because we feel in control when we use the juices or slices of lemon.

This is where conditioned bias can become dangerous. As long as we believe that we can control whatever it is that provokes a negative response, we do not fear it. As soon as we believe that we can not control whatever provokes a negative response, we start to fear it. And the combination of fear and conditioning generates the kind of bias that can last for many centuries.

Enough about harmless citrus fruits and the smell of coffee, and what tea-lovers might think about that. Let us put it on the boiling plate and address the real issues that are driving our society towards its own destruction. The bias we have against anything and everything we either don’t like or what we fear.

Whatever race you are, whatever ethnicity you belong to, whatever religion you carry inside you, whatever nationality you are part of, and even whatever language you speak, your first preference is and will always be whatever it is that you are used to. The second preference in you and anyone else including myself, will always be whatever it is that you find attractive. You, just like me, will appreciate the actions of a person you consider attractive much more than the same actions of a person you consider unattractive. And the third preference in all of us will always be based on our experiences of good and bad, nice and unpleasant, beauty and dislike, sweet and sour.

Bias is part of how we think and feel as human beings and denying that is the most dangerous way to ignore the bias in all of us. Bias itself is not always negative. Anyone who has ever been in love in their life knows how wonderful bias can be. Bias gets dangerous when it is combined with fear. Fear of whatever is different. Fear of whatever is not like us. Fear of whatever we are are told and taught to fear.

Collective fear is driving bias to the level that it destroys lives. Collective fear is driving bias to the level that people call the police for someone with a different color of skin. Collective fear is driving bias to the level that the police will aggressively arrest a person just for having a different color of skin. Collective fear is driving bias to the level that we are living in a world of “them” versus “us”, where “them” is everyone who is not like “us”.

Bias is normal, conditioned fear driven bias is lethal! Denying bias and the fear that drives it is sustaining bias. Start today by stopping to deny your own bias. Start today by stopping to claim that you have no bias. You do! And so do I! I like espresso and I dislike latte macchiato. I trust people I know and I don’t trust people I do not (yet) know.

I have had very negative experiences with a heavily drinking person in my past so I immediately respond in a negative way when someone around me gets drunk. That person might be kind and funny, but I respond to the experience and not the person- That is conditioned bias and that is my problem.

My parents were Jewish and I once had horrible aggressive and even dangerous anti-semitic experience on an airport during one of my many business trips. For a moment, I feared for my own life and that was a very intense and emotional experience I carry with me. Whenever I return to that airport I get the same negative vibes, driven by my own emotions. Whenever I hear that language, no matter where it is, I feel the same anger coming up. I am biased towards everyone and everything related to that experience and that is even enhanced by the conditioning of my upbringing. The fearful “it can happen again” was confirmed in that one single moment, in that one dangerous experience. When I would deny that bias, claim it is “them” and rationalize my own fear and anger triggered by a single person as if it was caused by an entire nation, I would be doing what has been done for centuries.

We must stop rationalizing our bias by pumping up statistics and “facts” about who did what to whom and when. We must start accepting that our bias is driven by fear and conditioning, and take it from there. And most of all, we must stop raising the next generations of biased human beings by installing our own fears and biases in them. Before we can do that, we must stop denying that we are bias. All of us!

Dad, consultant, coach, speaker, author. Mainly Cyber Security, leadership, responsible tech and organizational change.

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