The judge, jury and witnesses were all paid off

Prejudice is easy to detect in others. It’s much harder to see in ourselves. This is because our attitudes just seem to fit our observations, or perhaps more accurately, our observations happen to fit our attitudes.

Of course, trying to figure out whether experience feeds attitudes or attitudes feed experience may be a chicken and egg argument but prejudices certainly feed themselves once they take hold. They may start innocently enough, fed perhaps by someone else’s attitude or by a single observation, but once they get a hold of us, selective attention and self-confirming attributional biases keep them going strong for years.

While prejudicial attitudes have important implications for societies, very little attention is paid to how they affect our attitudes about ourselves. The same process that creates bias toward others can also create bias against the person making the judgment. My April 20 column for Métro revisits this principle (see also: self-confirming negative biases).

When working with people with low self-confidence, I like to use prejudice toward racial or ethnic groups as an illustration since most of us can see how unfair the process is. I then propose to use the same questions to examine the client’s attitude toward him or herself. The striking thing about people who lack self-confidence is how they tend to dismiss anything that seems to be a positive achievement – “It was easy. I was lucky. They complimented me to be nice. etc.” – while blaming themselves whenever there is a problem.

Changing an unfair attitude is tough enough but it starts with the recognition that a bias exists. If we think we are seeing the world accurately, we are unlikely to listen to anyone who disagrees with us -like my naive psychologist who is paid to be nice to me. If we can see that we are biased, on the other hand, then we can step back and try to look at the facts from a more objective perspective.

In the column below, I use an analogy of a courtroom where the judge is biased and must step down from the case. It is a no-brainer. Unfortunately it is easier to conceptualize a solution than to put it in place. The process is actually a long one but once a client recognizes the bias, he or she can begin to question observations and develop a more scientific attitude over time.

Recuse yourself

(Source: Oubliez vos préjugés envers vous-mêmes. Journal Métro, April 20, 2010)

If you were a judge and found yourself assigned to a case where your best friend stands accused of a crime, would you not step down?

What if you were the alleged victim of the accused man? Would you not expect the judge to step down?

These are pretty simple questions with obvious answers but what would happen if you were the one accused of a crime and the judge was a friend of your accuser? Worse still, what if the judge was also paid to rule against you?

Of course, if you knew about the bribe and the personal connection, you certainly would demand that the judge step down, but what if you were unaware of the bias? In such a bizarre scenario you would be guilty every time, no matter what the facts were.

Our own biases

The situation I painted is pretty far-fetched but we actually live with similar ones all the time. Many people who lack confidence feel as if we they are losers or defective in some way. This translates into a belief system that acts like any other bias or prejudice.

Prejudice means to pre-decide. Those who feel they are defective have already ruled against themselves. The actual facts in question are irrelevant. All biases are self-confirming. If I think I am stupid and make an honest mistake, I will blame it on my stupidity. If I succeed, I will tend to say the task was easy or that I was lucky. This tendency will feed my lack of confidence.

Self-confirming biases work in reverse for people who think too much of themselves. If I think I am always right, I will always take credit for anything that goes well and find a way to blame other when they don’t. This tendency will feed my arrogance.

Let someone else decide

We all carry our baggage of biases. Some prejudices work against others while some work against our own selves. The first thing we need to do is become aware that they exist. Once we do so, we must recuse ourselves. Just like the judge who lacks impartiality, we must let someone else decide. Our own self-judgments are simply not going to be fair or accurate. Whether we think too little of ourselves – or too much – we have little choice but to rely on the judgments of others.

…and to trust those judgments.

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Posted in Depression.

Posted on 10 May 2010

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