This is for the well-intentioned: those of you that don’t want to offend, those that aspire to be fair and treat others respectfully. In my experience, that’s the vast majority of us. The harsh reality for the well-meaning is that, regardless of our intentions, our biases often and unknowingly determine how we perceive others, the situations we’re in and how we respond and interact.
The fact that this happens many times unintentionally is the frustrating reality. Our brains operate so quickly and innocently jump to misperceptions. The question then becomes, how can we be faster than our brains? To dissect what goes on in that split-second, we can look at the three levels of observation. At deepSEE, we use the SEE model to explain those level and we start with a simple activity. Keep in mind that as you read through this activity you are aware that it is an activity used to illustrate bias. In that regard you will likely be more conscious of biased perceptions. However, when we do this activity with groups, they are unaware of the purpose and thus approach it, as we all typically approach every moment and situation, with our biases unchecked.
We begin by showing the picture below and ask participants to describe the picture with as many items or statements as they can.
We’ve shown this image to hundreds of groups. Each compiles a long list of descriptions and usually those descriptions are fairly similar. The typical, though slightly abbreviated list looks like this:
• Happy family
• 6 people and a dog
• Grandmother sitting on the floor/ground
• Loving son and father
• Angry boy in the back
• Tattered rug and picture on wall
• Warm climate
• Ethnic family, possibly African or Caribbean
• Woman on floor is more stylish
After generating the list, we show them the SEE model: See, Explain, Evaluate to describe the three levels of observation. Only the first level of See is without bias. It is the level of objective information gathering and limited only what we actually see. The second level, Explain, adds the first layer of bias. It is more subjective based on our experiences, culture and values, to name a few. This level is what we think we see or observe. The final level, Evaluate, adds even more bias and judgment. It’s how we think and feel about what we think we see.
What does it matter? The farther we move into the second and third levels of Explain and Evaluate, the more our bias is determining our thoughts and actions and the more likely the chance of misperception. After explaining the three levels, we then ask the group to look at their list of descriptors to identify those that were without bias—those that stopped at the first level of See. Typically, it’s one or two out of a flip chart full of descriptors. In the list above, the only See description without bias is “6 people and a dog.” Keep in mind that these are all well-intentioned people, yet the vast majority of their thoughts went to the levels where bias resides. That’s because that’s what our brains are designed and trained to do.
What do we do about it? Since there’s no off switch for these second levels of observation, we need to learn how to work with them. The first step is moving the discussion about bias out of the realm of blame and shame. It’s something all of our brains do. When we accept that, we can approach awareness of our biases more openly. The second step is becoming more aware of the drivers of the second and third levels: our culture, experiences, values and beliefs. Only when we are fully aware of how these drivers control our perceptions and misperceptions, are we able to stop them when they get in the way. Only then are we able to be faster than our brains.