This past week, James Comey, FBI director, challenged law enforcement to avoid “lazy mental shortcuts.” These short-cuts can take the form of bias, leading to different treatment of blacks and other minorities, he said.
But is it only law enforcement professionals who are prone to lazy mental short cuts? Clearly not.
Whether based on skin color, gender, accent, perceived education level or economic status, we all have mental models that we form and apply to different groups of people. And, we frequently act upon these models in ways we’re not even aware of. They show up as passing comments, subtle nonverbal cues, a repeated pattern of the kinds of people we approach at social events, or how much time we take to help someone.
Neuroscience has shown that people can identify another person’s apparent race, gender, and age in a matter of milliseconds. In this blink of an eye, a complex network of stereotypes, emotional prejudices, and behavioral impulses activates. Thank goodness that it does, because this is what kept our ancestors alive; it was our own “personal threat detection system.” These mental shortcuts allow us to quickly evaluate people and our relative safety around them.
When we encounter a person, event or situation for the first time, our brain works hard and burns considerable energy to store new data points as a synaptic pattern for future reference. If that pattern happens to include the presence of fear or a perceived threat, a link to those emotions is stored along with the new profile and will trigger a protective response the next time we see a person who reminds us of that profile. If this happens multiple times, the response literally becomes “hard-wired” or automatic, and the associated neural pathways become very difficult to change because they are so energy efficient.
If we’re not careful, which is often, these patterns can be misapplied and we can respond defensively to people who mean us no harm whatsoever. This is the realm of unconscious bias and it affects all of us, not just law enforcement professionals.
Just because unconscious bias is easy and automatic for the brain doesn’t mean that it cannot be interrupted.
The hardest part is acknowledging that we all have it and then slowing our own responses down just enough to take a second look at all the information available. Each person is an individual and not representative of either a single demographic group or multiple groups. Just as we wouldn’t want to be engaged solely based upon our skin color, gender or what we happen to be wearing on a particular day, neither should we be satisfied with doing it to others.
In respectful workplaces and societies, this means taking the time to explore and challenge our triggers that lead to any negative feelings. It also requires that we explore and pursue what it takes to make others feel respected. While respect feels the same to each of us, how we achieve that goal is slightly different for each person.
If more consistently respecting each other is the ultimate goal, then cultivating a mindset of curiosity over judgment is the key.
There are all sorts of behaviors that can lead to the emotional feeling of respect over disrespect and discrimination. In order to activate these behaviors, we must start to approach each situation and person with fresh eyes and an open mind—challenging those automatic pathways that may have already been forged. Over time, newer, more updated pathways begin to take root.
Director Comey said:
“After years of police work, officers can’t help but be influenced by the cynicism they feel. A mental short cut becomes almost irresistible and maybe even rational by some lens.”
It’s not just law enforcement officers. It’s all of us who must work to interrupt the patterns of unconscious bias that degrade our workplace and community interactions each day.