Bias and the cultivation of open-hearted belief: Transcript from Unitarian Presentation

There’s a story from a couple of centuries ago. There was a situation where the Pope wanted the Jews to leave Rome. There was an uproar. So, they decided to have a debate. If the Pope won, then the oppositional Jews would leave. If the representative of the Jews won, the Jews could stay. There was a rule to the debate that neither side could talk. The debate begins and there’s silence for several minutes. Then the Pope raises his hand and shows three fingers. Moishe, who represents the Jews, raises one finger. The fingersPope raises his fingers and circles them around his head and Moishe points to the ground. The Pope gets out a wafer and a glass of wine and Moishe gets out an apple. The Pope stands up and says, “The man is too good I give up, the Jews can stay.”

An hour later the cardinals are all around the Pope and ask: “What happened?” The Pope says: “Well, I put up three fingers to represent the Trinity and he put up one finger to remind me that it’s all one God. I waved three fingers around my head to show that God was all around me, and he responded by pointing to the ground and saying that God is right here now. I pulled out the wine and wafer to show that God absolves us of our sins, and he pulled out the apple to remind me of original sin. What can I do, the guy is too good.”

Meanwhile the Jewish community circled around Moishe saying, “What happened?” He said, “Well, the Pope said we had three days to leave and I said not one of us is leaving. Then he said the whole city will be cleared out and I said we’re staying right here. Then, I don’t know, he pulled out his lunch so I pulled out mine.”

Sometimes bias is part of the fabric of our world – our automatic assumptions.

George Carlin had a joke that relates to bias. He said: have you ever noticed that anyone driving slower than you is inept and anyone driving faster than you is a maniac. It’s a way of saying that we may not be comfortable with people who do things differently than we do. It’s one of the roots of bias.

The world we perceive is filtered by assumptions and expectations. Even science, which prides itself on objectivity, is clearly not immune to bias.

Biologist Stephen Jay Gould didn’t think he could label current scientific bias – because bias is often hidden. But he was fairly certain that future historians could do it. As illustration, he became a historian of scientific bias.

In the MISMEASURE OF MAN Gould exposes the bias of the most “objective American scientist of his day”, Samuel Morton.

In the 1840s Morton set out to scientifically prove the ranking of intelligence by race. He made use of the largest skull collection in the world to measure the brain sizes of various races. The larger the skull, the bigger the brain. The larger the brain size, the smarter the race. Gould states: “Needless to say, [his findings] matched every good Yankee’s prejudice — whites on top, Indians in the middle, and blacks on the bottom.” Gould states that Morton published all of his data, data sample, and methods, so it was clear he did not intend to fudge the data consciously in order to match his expectations. But in fact, Morton made error after error. He unconsciously chose the smaller female skulls of blacks, and the larger male skulls of Caucasians. He unconsciously chose skulls from shorter people to sample non-Caucasians. Shorter people automatically meant smaller skulls. When using mustard seed to measure skull capacity, he stuffed the seed more densely into Caucasians sculls. He made statistical errors. When Gould reviewed Morton’s data, correcting for errors, he determined that there was no difference in brain size between the various races in the skull sample available to Morton. Morton produced inaccurate results, not due to conscious manipulation, but because of unconscious bias.

This type of bias is known as conformity bias: the tendency to interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms our preexisting beliefs.

It’s human to prefer that the world conform to our ideas. We’re more comfortable being with folks that reinforce our worldview. If we’re healthy, that worldview includes diversity. But sometimes we only like diversity when it fits with our preconceived notions of diversity, or when we have discovered common ground. And why not, who doesn’t value harmony. However, the problems of bias include stagnation, ignorance, and rejecting the ideas of others without proper consideration.

We all have bias, based on the beliefs and worldview that help us to navigate reality. Our brains want very much to predict reality because it’s easier for us to endure imagined difficulties we can predict rather than experience surprise difficulties that are a shock to the system. Making assessments can help us feel in control and can give us a sense of stable ground.

There is a joke about a magician who had a talking parrot. They were performing on a ship. Every time the magician performed a trick, the parrot would say “the card was up his sleeve,” or “the rabbit was under his hat.” Well, the ship sunk and the parrot and the magician shared a life raft. For a few days the parrot was silent. Finally the parrot looks at the magician and says: ‘OK, I give up, what did you do with the ship.’

We want to have things figured out, because that may feel safer than confronting an unknown reality. But we can’t get to the truth if we don’t occasionally challenge our expectations and assumptions.

The following story is an example of how Swiss psychiatrist Carl imagesJung was able to examine European bias through the eyes of another culture, when he met with a Native American chief of the Taos Pueblos in New Mexico in 1932.

“Chief Mountain Lake told Jung: The whites always want something. They are always uneasy and restless. We do not know what they want. We do not understand them. We think that they are all crazy.’

When Jung asks why he thinks they are all crazy, Mountain Lake replies, “They say they think with their heads.”

“’Why of course,’ says Jung, ‘What do you think with?’
“’We think here,’ says Chief Mountain Lake, indicating his heart.

In his autobiography, Jung states that after this exchange he fell into a deep meditation. The Pueblo Chief had struck a vulnerable spot. Jung saw image upon image of cruelties inflicted by his own civilization, who’s thinking overruled feeling like a bird of prey hunting with heartless intent.

Jung States: Chief Mountain Lake pointed to the sun, and said “Is not he who moves there our father? Nothing can be without the sun.” His excitement, which was already perceptible, mounted still higher: he struggled for words, and exclaimed at last, “What would a man do alone in the mountains? He cannot even build his fire without him.”

Jung states: I asked him whether he did not think the sun might be a fiery ball shaped by an invisible god. My question left him cold. I had the feeling that I had come upon an insurmountable wall. His only rely was, “The sun is God. Everyone can see that.”

Chief Mountain Lake continued: “We are a people who live on the roof of the world; we are the sons of Father Sun, and with our religion we daily help our father to go across the sky. We do this not only for ourselves, but for the whole world.”

Jung states that the deep rationalist bias of Europeans might judge the Pueblo Indian’s worldview as naive or ignorant, whereas the Pueblo Indians thought Europeans were crazy because they were not connected or interacting with the sacred aspects of the world. Jung sides with Chief Mountain Lake, stating: “Such a man is in the fullest sense of the word in his proper place.”

Another type of bias is negativity bias – anticipating the worst possible outcome. It comes out of a fear of harm – a desire to overprotect, whether that’s an individual or a nation. As the saying goes, “Our memories are Velcro for painful experiences and Teflon for pleasant ones!” It may be that evolution designed us to be deeply impressed by what could possibly kill us. We may be inclined toward building our core beliefs out of experiences of hurt and fear, and holding on to those underlying fears for dear life.

I had a boss, the owner of the company, that I’d meet with and report on the various facilities. Sometimes there were real problems, but very occasionally I would report that things were going well, and we should be proud. “No,” she would respond, “I don’t believe that. There’s always a problem.” Some people believe that no matter what, there will always be problems, that life is necessarily a series of problems.

I’m guessing that you’ve all heard of the placebo affect, where a belief in an inert treatment creates a positive outcome. But perhaps you may not have heard of the nocebo affect, the expectation of negativity. In Japan in 1962 they did a study with 13 children who were very sensitive to poison ivy. The children were told that they were rubbing poison ivy leaves on their arms. But they were only rubbing harmless leaves, and yet all participants broke out in a rash. Negative expectation can actually be harmful.

On an emotional level, some people believe they have to earn love, that love only comes if something is done that earns that blue ribbon.

Gandhi states: “Your beliefs become your thoughts, Your thoughts become your words, Your words become your actions.”

Gandhi’s quote begins with belief. But clearly bias will influence belief. How do we cultivate belief? I have three suggestions.

The first suggestion is to recognize that bias is a normal part of the human experience, and that it might be worthwhile to observe our beliefs that become thoughts that become actions. Sometimes, we may become aware of self-limiting bias or behaviors that we’ve hung on to for reasons we may not understand. I’m suggesting we set an intention to practice a little self-observation – decide that we’re going to stop or pause a few times during the day to observe and reflect. If that seems too frequent, you could choose a time for daily reflection. Or, you could just do it on Sundays – whenever you have some time. Maybe you’re observing yourself in this very moment and noting an impulse of either agreement or resistance. Either way, allow the observation. Any self-observation is a moment of mindfulness.

The second suggestion is to acknowledge your potential to experience open-hearted awareness. Begin to open your heart and mind to the spirit of exploration, compassion, and the potential to let go of beliefs that are outdated or maladaptive. With exploration comes the opportunity to gain insight and apply skillful means. With compassion we can practice discrimination without recrimination. Compassion is the opposite of a negative bias, because compassion opens our hearts to empathy and kindness. Compassion is a very powerful force.

The third suggestion is to deepen your exploration though the cultivation of mindfulness. With awareness of our moment to moment experience, we directly weaken habitual perceptions. Our aliveness, intelligence, and innate compassion can naturally shine through. Each time we move away from fear or anxiety into open-hearted awareness, we are increasingly able to see past the confining stories we tell, stories about the unworthiness of ourself or others. These stories may feel real but they are probably not true. With practice, open-hearted awareness can soften rigid or negative patterns. With letting go we begin to develop equanimity and the ability to disengage from unwanted bias and belief. It takes practice to cultivate the strength of heart that allows the better angels of our nature to guide us.

Kaveri Patel, a modern poet, wrote:
The old truth made you run a 1,000 miles inside an arid desert,
desperate for an oasis.a_spectacular_desert_oasis_in_the_middle_of_the_sahara_640_04
Sit & close your eyes.
Inhale the breeze of kindness,
Exhale the toxic judgements
that dehydrate you like a prune.
Feel the pain of old patterns
trapped in tense muscles.
Its ok to cry.
to taste the salt of possibility.
Just Be. Just Breathe.
Let waves break against the silence.
returning you to a new and deeper truth.

In this talk I’ve labeled three types of bias: the personal bias of filtering perception through our worldview, conformity bias, and negativity bias. There are, of course, many other types of bias. And I’ve made three suggestions: to practice self-observation, to explore your experience with compassion, and to mindfully cultivate a more open-hearted awareness.

Perhaps now, if you’d like, we can take a contemplative moment to play with those suggestions. Perhaps we can take a moment for self-observation and exploration with a lightness of touch, without judgement or recrimination. We’re allowing for gentle observation and compassion for the human condition. Or, if you’d like, allow a moment of informed calm to enter your world. Take a moment’s pause to intentionally cultivate a more open-hearted awareness.

So, let’s take a moment’s pause to recognize a personal bias, or to engage the moment with the potential of an open heart, at the sound of the bell.

BELL: Take a moment for an exploration into bias, or to intentionally cultivate a more open-hearted awareness – listening to the world with all its diversity, and listening to the Heart’s Will.

When we are willing to clean the mirror of perception we become more fully aware of our choices. When we train ourselves to have a reverence for the changing nature of what is true, to live with presence, loving awareness can become our home and follow us into the world.

The Persian mystic Rumi had this to say:

I must have been incredibly simple or drunk or insane
to sneak into my own house and steal money,
to climb over the fence and take my own vegetables.
But no more. I’ve gotten free of that ignorant fist
that was pinching and twisting my secret self.

The universe and the light of the stars come through me.
I am the crescent moon put up
over the gate to the festival.

Thank you for this sharing opportunity.

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