Under the Influence (Part 2)

Why recognizing our own bias is important

Last week, we spent our brief time together bringing to light the fact that, no matter what we say or want to believe, we are all influenced by forces outside of ourselves. From how and where we are raised to the people we surround ourselves with, no single one of us is free from bias. We all approach the world around us from a different perspective; a perspective influenced by the worlds we have been raised in or have incorporated ourselves into.

Today, in no particular order, we are going to discuss three reasons why acknowledging this about ourselves is important and what the implications of this acknowledgment are.

1. Wisdom

One reason acknowledging our own inherent biases is so important is because it shows wisdom.

John Calvin, a theologian from way back in the 1600s, stated, in the very opening paragraphs of his magnum opus, The Institutes of the Christian Religion,

It is evident that man never attains to a true self-knowledge until he have previously contemplated the face of God, and come down after such contemplation to look into himself. For (such is our innate pride) we always seem to ourselves just, and upright, and wise, and holy, until we are convinced, by clear evidence, of our injustice, vileness, folly, and impurity.

For Calvin, true wisdom consists in knowing ourselves and knowing God. If you are religious, this all makes perfect sense, but if you are not religious, you might be thinking to yourself, “what does this have to do with individual bias?”

In a broader sense, Calvin’s words are perfectly sensible, even for the non-religious. It is not possible to know ourselves until we have taken time to look at the world outside of ourselves. And it is not possible to know the world outside of ourselves until we have taken time to look within.

In less philosophical terms, to understand our own bias, we need to take a moment and observe the world we have been raised in. But we also have to look inside ourselves and figure out who we are and what kinds of things we think and believe. But, as Calvin also stated, “as these are connected together by many ties, it is not easy to determine which of the two precedes and gives birth to the other.” For Calvin, the question would have been is it knowing God that gives rise to knowledge of ourselves, or is it knowing ourselves which leads us to know God? For the sake of our discussion here, we would ask, is it acknowledging our own bias that leads us to see how we are influenced by the world around us, or is it seeing that we are influenced by the world around us that leads to an acknowledgment of our own bias?

If we can come to a place where we admit that we are biased, and have even a rudimentary understanding of how we came to be that way, we are on the path toward wisdom. Some would call it virtue signaling, but one would actually be showing a higher level of self-knowing by admitting that they are influenced by others and, therefore, might actually be wrong about something. As Shakespeare once said, “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.”

2. Humility

One of the big things to come out of acknowledgment of personal bias is that it takes, and shows that we possess, great humility. Because, when we admit that we are influenced by something outside ourselves, we set ourselves up to be able to acknowledge that we might be wrong about something.

For most of us, admitting that we are wrong does not come easy. As the COVID-19 pandemic has raged on, I have watched as people had to keep changing their arguments against the precautions recommended by the experts as evidence showed that they were indeed preventing the spread. Rather than admit that they were wrong, these same people continued to defend their position, they just had to work really hard at coming up with new reasons against taking those precautions.

On the other hand, humility leads to being able to admit you are wrong and take the actions necessary to change course. Humility is the strength to be able to change your perspective when it is clearly proven wrong. Humility allows you to make a response to an error that, while not removing the consequences of the error, will, hopefully, prevent others from making the same mistake in the future.

But you will never have this sense of humility until you first admit that you are biased by the people and media you have surrounded yourself with. To believe that your sources can get it wrong sets you up to be able to see where you get it wrong as well. And this creates humility within yourself.

3. Empathy

A third, and I would argue the most important (at least in our current social and political climate), trait that acknowledging our own bias creates within us is empathy. This is also the hardest one to cultivate. When someone is seemingly deliberately spreading false information or taking intentionally stupid actions, it is extremely hard to “feel sorry” for them. And even harder to understand where they are coming from. But seeing that we are biased and influenced by outside sources can lead us to a better understanding of why, possibly, these people continue to unknowingly continue to adhere to ideas that are untrue. Which is a vitally important skill in our present day and age.

But before we can talk about why empathy is important, we need to have an understanding of exactly what empathy is. In this regard, I do not want to shortchange you. We need to have a firm grasp on precisely what empathy is before we can truly understand how acknowledging our own bias helps us acquire this trait. And that is an entire discussion all its own, which we will be conducting next time.

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