When I was growing up, both my parents smoked. I also spent my most formative years breathing the smog-choked air of Los Angeles County. Come to think of it, I had a boyfriend or two who was addicted to nicotine in the days when most people didn’t think much of it.
On the other hand, I never smoked myself. Well, that’s not quite true. I do remember the time when I snuck into my parent’s bedroom to see what all this smoking fuss was about. Being a naïve 10-year-old, I didn’t stop to think that my father might walk in; which he did. Somehow I have a memory of my contorting my never-to-be-nicotine-stained hand behind my back to hide my sin only to realize that the smoke from the cigarette was wafting straight up my spine creating, much to my father’s surprise, the incongruous image of my hair being on fire. Yes, I got caught.
Taking all that into consideration, am I predisposed to lung cancer? How at risk am I for emphysema? It’s hard to say, but clearly I am at greater risk than those whose parents did not smoke or who grew up breathing the pristine air of an off-shore island.
We can ask the same question about our biases. How much do our early experiences and environment predispose us to holding biases – those inflexible positive or negative beliefs about particular categories of people that so readily interfere with our developing healthy and productive relationships?
Like cancer or diabetes or high blood pressure, there are certain factors that predispose us to developing biases. That’s not to say that these factors guarantee this affliction – just as having a parent who smokes does not guarantee respiratory problems – but it does mean we are at greater risk than those who experienced different influences. Here are some of those risk factors. Do any of these statements apply to you?
1. While growing up, the people who raised me talked a lot about how bad prejudice and bias were, but never in fact socialized much with people different from themselves.
Predisposing Element: A mixed message about the value of diversity
2. Early in life I had a strong negative experience with a given group, but have rarely interacted with that group since.
Predisposing Element: A negative association that was never diluted by a wider variety of experiences
3. As I child, my parents and teachers sent the message that it was disrespectful to point out the ways in which someone else is different.
Predisposing Element: The message that it was wrong to acknowledge difference contains the sub-text that there is something wrong with that difference
4. When I was a child, I remember that when my parents recounted an incident involving people from a different group, they often mentioned the race or ethnicity of the participants even if it had nothing to do with the story.
Predisposing Element: Mentioning a difference when it is not pertinent sends the message that that difference is of greater importance than the person’s shared humanity
5. Early in life I had a strong positive experience with a given group, but have rarely interacted with that group since.
Predisposing Element: As with a negative experience, the predisposing element is the fact that the positive encounter was never balanced by a wider variety of experiences.
This last risk factor may have surprised you. After all, what could possibly be wrong with having nothing but positive experiences with another group? The answer lies in the definition of bias – “an inflexible positive or negative belief about a particular category of people.” Biases, be they about negative characteristics (“All gay men are promiscuous,” “All young people are unreliable”) or positive traits (“All Asians are good with computers,” “All black people have rhythm”) prevent us from seeing the person as an individual and, therefore, from treating them with respect. When all we have had are positive experiences with a group, we are at grave risk of believing that they are, every single one of them, alike in some way. That sure sounds like bias to me.
© copyright 2013 Sondra Thiederman, Ph.D.
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