What We Owe to Others

reflection Feb 13, 2020

By Jenn Beatty

When I was 10 years old, I was given the opportunity of a lifetime. I began attending an elite, private school in Los Angeles on a full scholarship. I was one of two black students in my entire class, and one of only a few to wear second-hand uniforms and receive free lunch.

Although I’d been performing well in my previous school, the demands of the new curriculum were far greater than what I was accustomed to. I was overwhelmed. It felt like the demands I was facing exceeded my ability to meet them.

Have you ever felt this way? I think we all do, at some point or another. When we run into these problems, it can be difficult to ask for help. Either we’re embarrassed to ask, or we don’t know how. As a fifth grade girl, I was in the latter category. I had no idea that there were people that I could reach out to.  

Thankfully, I was blessed with a caring and perceptive 5th grade teacher who saw that I needed help and volunteered to tutor me. Each day, for many months, she woke up far earlier than her job required to make sure I succeeded. She taught me the foundations of writing and math. She also taught me that I mattered. 

She changed the trajectory of my life. 

Following high school, I chose to attend George Washington University on a scholarship, where I graduated with honors as a double major in psychology and theatre. After earning a bachelor’s degree, I went on to earn two graduate degrees from The University of Pennsylvania in education and positive psychology. 

My early life experiences taught me that true success extends beyond personal measures. I strive to help people like my teacher helped me – not just academically, but interpersonally. She demonstrated what Maya Angelou wrote in her poem, The Human Family: “We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.” 

Despite the many demands that my teacher surely faced in her own life, she chose to slow down and connect with me. In this article, I’d like to share a few ideas about how you and I can do the same.  

Building Connection with Others

Though most of us want deep connections in our lives, they are often difficult to establish— especially with those whom we perceive to be different from us. 

One major reason for this is that each of us are subject to cognitive biases. Psychologist Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Prize, in large part, by demonstrating how prevalent cognitive biases are. It’s not a matter of if you and I have cognitive biases, it’s a matter of the degree to which we allow them to impact our lives. 

Cognitive biases arise from “shortcuts of intuitive thinking” that are meant to help us make sense of the world. For example, if you see a group wearing all black, dressy clothing, you may unconsciously assume that they are mourning someone or something. This may influence you to smile less as you interact with them. This is a natural and helpful assumption that is often right.

Unfortunately, cognitive biases can also lead us to incorrect assessments of others, especially in ambiguous situations. These mistakes can be amplified when interacting with people who we perceive to be different than us and can ultimately make connection quite difficult. Left unexamined, our biases interfere with our ability to get along with others, particularly across different social and racial groups. 

To build positive intergroup relationships with people of other races and cultures, we need to be aware of how our biases manifest themselves in our decisions and interactions. The challenge is that most of us are so busy keeping up with the many demands of life that we rarely take the time to probe our own biases. As a result, we miss opportunities to make connections with people outside our immediate social and demographic circles. 

How can we change this?

Personal Responsibility 

The first step to overcoming our cognitive biases is to admit that we all have them. We need to disabuse ourselves of the notion that we “don’t see color” (or gender, or political affiliation, or whatever). We all do. If we aren’t aware of our biases, we can’t do anything about them. But the work doesn’t stop there. Once we accept the reality that each of us is subject to bias, the next step is taking personal responsibility for how we see and treat others. 

Recent work by Natalie Daumeyer at Yale demonstrated that merely being aware of our own biases is not enough to change them. In fact, being aware of the fact that we all have implicit bias can decrease the level of responsibility that we feel toward changing our behavior. Daumeyer conducted multiple studies which found that individuals hold professionals, such as doctors and civil servants, less accountable for discrimination when their behavior was attributed to implicit, rather than explicit, bias. Daumeyer’s work shows, crucially, that viewing our own bias as uncontrollable, may reduce motivation to do something about it.

Thankfully, research has shown that there are many things you and I can do to reduce our own bias. The rest of this blog will be dedicated to one particularly effective way to do so.

Slowing Down

Jennifer Eberhardt, an award-winning professor of psychology at Stanford, recently published the book Biased, which explores the science of biased-thinking in intergroup relations. One of her major suggestions to help people to overcome bias is to get them to slow down. Why? Because biases thrive when people don’t take time to question them. 

Actually, our brain’s built-in tendency for bias evolved as a way to help us to process a lot of information very quickly. In order to protect us against the many threats in our environment, our brains made an evolutionary trade off—lightning quick cognitive processing above accuracy. This incredibly fast processing is very useful if you’re trying to evade a saber-toothed tiger. In that scenario, you don’t have time to consider, “is this really a dangerous predator… what if he wants to be my friend?”  No, in that situation, you need to make a snap judgment and react. But in modern society, our tendency for snap judgments can lead to tragedy (as we have sadly seen, over and over and over again). 

When we follow Dr. Eberhardt’s suggestion to slow down, we allow the slower, more accurate part of our brain to take control. This part of our brain is much less prone to bias. 

In an interview, she described her work with Next Door, a mobile app company that enables neighbors to make suggestions and post announcements about topics of neighborhood importance. Next Door was having trouble with neighbors racially profiling individuals on their crime and safety tab. So, they asked Dr. Eberhardt for her insight and expertise. Her recommendation was to help individuals slow down by asking them questions within the app to help reduce bias. By having individuals answer specific questions they were better able to identify suspicious behaviors rather than suspicious-looking people. After her consultation, when neighbors wanted to post in this section of the app, they were prompted with questions so that they could identify specific, suspicious behaviors. This shift helped to curb profiling by about 75%! 

You and I can use the same strategies that Eberhardt shared with Next Door to overcome our biases. If we’re feeling threatened by someone from a different group, we can ask ourselves specific questions to help us to slow down. For example, we can ask, “what, specifically, is this person doing that is making me feel uncomfortable?” Or, when interacting with people in different social groups, we can ask ourselves, “what assumptions am I making about this person, just because they are a particular race (or gender, or religion, etc.).” We can also ask, “what would it be like to be this person?” Or, “what about their social environment am I not noticing?” Asking these questions will help us to slow down and become aware of our own biases. It will also help us consider other people’s perspectives.  

Making an Impact

Often we think of interpersonal connection as strengthening relationships with people we already know, but a transformational connection can happen with anyone. Although it may be difficult to bridge perceived differences, habitually connecting to others with compassion and civility makes us all better.  

My 5th grade teacher connected with me in a way that made us both better. Our connection not only helped me thrive, but it changed her life as well. After I graduated from college, I wrote her a letter thanking her for the impact she had on my life. She wrote back, “There are certain people who come into your life and really make such a difference. I am talking about you making a difference in my life… I know you will go on to make a difference in many lives”. I hope I can prove her right. 

My current goal is to conduct research that helps people connect with those who appear to be different. I hope to help people slow down and understand what Maya Angelou learned all those years ago, “we are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.” As we understand this, each of us can make a lasting impact on all the different shades of our human family. 

About the Author

Jennifer Beatty is passionate about using research to engender harmonious intergroup relations. She has earned both a master of science in education and a master of applied positive psychology degree from the University of Pennsylvania. She currently works as a research coordinator at Wharton People Analytics supporting the work of Adam Grant, Angela Duckworth, Cade Massey, and Matthew Bidwell.

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