This month’s Scientific American has a fantastic interview with Rebecca Saxe. She is a neuroscientist at MIT studying “theory of mind,” the root of which is centered in a small section of the brain behind the right ear. This section “drives much of what we associate with humanity–conversation, friendship, love, empathy, morality” (74).
The heart of Saxe’s research is understanding how people intuit other people’s thoughts and emotions, and how we create our perceptions of others. Her passion is conflict resolution. She believes that understanding how the brain functions in our relationships, particularly between polarized groups such as Israelis and Palestinians, can lead to more peaceful solutions to conflict.
Saxe wants to use neuroscience to measure elusive but powerful determinants such as bias. She describes why she has turned to studying the brain to understand how bias works:
There are many reasons for people to tell you they’re not biased. They don’t want to be biased; they know the right answer is not to be biased. Often people are not even aware of their own biases. So there is a big problem: How do you measure and change something that people are not entirely aware of, that they don’t want to admit and that they have a motivation to cover up? (76)
Bias plays a huge part in how we perceive what motivates others’ beliefs. If someone disagrees with us, particularly if they have an opposite view to ours (liberal/conservative, Christian/atheist, Israeli/Palestinian), then we tend to think that they are driven by ideology, ignorance, or selfishness. We may even think they’re just nuts. It’s difficult, without acknowledging our biases, to understand that they may have perfectly logical reasons for believing what they believe, just like we do.
I’ve been thinking how this research about bias can be applied to our personal relationships. The quality of our relationships is one of the most important determinants of our happiness and fulfillment. Nothing grounds us like great friends, a supportive family, a loving partner, or some combination of these. But even in the best of relationships, conflict occurs. Are we courageous enough to dig inside ourselves and root out our biases? Can we be mindful and self-aware enough–can we actively listen enough–to see that others’ beliefs are motivated by the same things that motivate our beliefs?
When I was in high school, I came home one evening to find my younger sister crying. My sister is the youngest of three–we have an older brother–and she was always the most vivacious and charming of us. She also had a reputation for storytelling and sometimes just plain lying–nothing harmful, just a product of a keen imagination and talent for making things up.
When I asked her what was wrong, she told me that our parents had laughed off something she had said to them. They thought she was joking about something that was serious to her.
“They still think I’m like I was when I was five years old!” she said. “Nobody has even noticed that I haven’t told a lie in years! Nobody even sees that I grew up!”
I remember how I felt listening to her–like blood was draining from my face. It was one of those moments when I knew I was hearing truth. Something clicked in my brain and in my heart.
We did think of her like that. We were, in fact, attached to her being that five-year-old storyteller. In our conflict-ridden family, that little girl could really take the pressure off.
I had to admit, even just to myself, that until that moment I had clung to that bias. Fortunately, I was present and mindful enough to hear her (not common for my teenage self) and it changed my view of her immediately and forever. She was in complete earnest, and I understood that my little sister was growing into a sister without the “little.”
Saxe touches upon how her research into the dynamics between empowered/disempowered people can apply to personal conflict resolution. Her words encapsulate the experience I had with my sister:
To the extent that you are the empowered person, you should work extra hard to listen, to get new information and to hear where the other person is coming from. For the disempowered person, the experience of being heard can help open barriers and unblock bad situations (77).
Any youngest sibling will tell you that they can feel pretty disempowered at times.
What is difficult about a moment like I had with my sister is how embarrassing or even shameful it feels to recognize a bias. Saxe is right–we don’t want to admit them. It feels morally wrong to have biases; it feels somehow un-self-aware or unintelligent or mean, even though we all have them.
I’m spending time now investigating what my biases are in my personal relationships, and really focusing on relationships I’ve had for years. What biases have I built up about that person? What do I depend on them being, without considering if I’m even right? Do I truly understand what motivates her? Do I truly listen to him? I’m hoping that this internal investigation, difficult as it is, might lead to more clarity and revitalization in my relationships.
What do you think about biases? Are you able to see them in yourself and admit to them? Did you have an experience when you discovered a bias and it changed the nature of how you viewed another person, or even yourself?
p.s. Here’s another example of how I learned something profound by paying attention and being mindful when someone was communicating with me