Lately I’ve acquired an interesting book on thinking called “thinking fast and slow”. This is a classic and I am most certainly not the first person who has been amazed by the simple explaining power it has.
I’ll quickly relay the theory of it to you as some background for a chain of thoughts I had quickly after starting reading it. The book states:
- We have an amazingly fast working mind which can respond to most occurrences of life in real time. It is the voice in you head that answers 2+2= and “what is the capital of France?” And as you probably did just answer these two questions immediately, and involuntarily, you have just been demonstrated its workings.
- We also have an amazingly analytic mind, which takes over whenever our fast system fails. It helps you figure out 11×23= . If you tried to answer that question you’ll have noticed that this system responds much slower, and takes time to first figure out how to figure out the answer.
- These systems can get cross-wired, which is when we start messing up. Things like those jokes where you have to read out the color written, not the color it is written in. This is your fast system recognizing the color and supplying the answer much faster than your slow system, which is reading the words. You can win at the game only by focusing on the answer given by the slower system, and ignoring the fast but wrong answer.
I write all of this as a context to explain what happened on a sunlit Monday, when I was working at home and just nipped down to the supermarket to get some lunch. (“Down” as in “I live above the supermarket, which I strongly recommend.” )
Just as I came out, my groceries bungling from my arm, I saw a woman in her fifties sitting on a bench. I noticed the playboy t-shirt, the matted hair and above all the 8×6 beer (a.k.a hobo-beer) in her hand. My head drew some very firm, unshakeable conclusions on what had to be her personal history, her education and state of employment. This happened with the ease in which you just drew the conclusion “4” out of “2+2=”.
And then I realized that what I had easily taken to be true, and self-evident were a lot of erroneous assumptions of my side. A by-product of my own fast thinking system being a bit over eager.
There are many conclusions that you can draw of the scene I saw. Maybe, the lady was a hard-working woman, like me, who worked at home, like me, went and bought lunch, like me, and also brought a can of beer for the end of the day. I could not remember seeing the can was actually open.
I hardly dress up for working at home, why should she? And that I don’t appreciate 8×6 beer, doesn’t mean it is impossible for some people to think it’s a good value-for-money beer. I could have been dead wrong about her. And yet, I had been ready to believe it all, without a second thought.
Now, I am not mad at myself for this jump to conclusion. I did not mean to be judgmental, I just had a mess-up in my thinking systems as described in point 3. It would have been a bad mistake if I had continued on and forgot to reflect on these conclusions. If I had acted on my judgment I would have been harmful to my environment as well.
But if I had, I hadn’t meant it. I hadn’t intentionally done something wrong, I had just had a thinking accident. Rather, in fact, like I once accidently drove my car into another car which I had somehow failed to notice. People would have been justified to be upset at the outcome of it, and I was wise to follow this failure by some driving lessons to avoid future collisions, but I wasn’t morally to blame.
In courts they require both actus rea and mens rea: someone both needs to do something and have intended to do that thing to make them guilty. (Obviously crimes like Involuntary Manslaughter are slightly different in mens rea aspect, but they will come up later down the line.)
I had committed a thinking error, and this constitutes an actus rea, but I had not intended to and therefore lacked mens rea. I was not really guilty of anything.
Yet, I like to make as little errors as possible, and so the incident sits uneasily in my stomach. It makes me think of those tests that demonstrate to you that you have racist and sexist associations. They are rather like the color-reading test: they ask you to associate words to sentiments, and if you have underlying racist and sexist tendencies some associations come easier. I failed both tests by being moderately racist and moderately sexist, despite being a feminist (and of the opinion that racism is stupid.)
It is clear to me now that failing those tests does not mean being a bad person. It means being a person who makes thinking errors.
Now messing up is not evil, but you are supposed to learn from it. So I spent the two years after the test trying to break myself of these tendencies. And while I’m writing this, I wonder how I did. So I took the racism test. I failed again, but in an utterly different way. I made too many mistakes with all associations, so I had to take the test anew. I did. And the results came in. I was less racist now than I was two years ago: I’m now only mildly racist, which is still bad. But you know… less bad? Sorta.
So what I have concluded up to now: racism, sexism and overall bigotry can exist as simple mental errors. People who make these mistake have no fault in making them, but they can harm people by accident. Overall it is a nice thing to try to break-free of all thinking errors, judgmental ones included. I have tried doing this and I have made improvements.
These improvements were made through conscious and effortful rethinking of my fast-thinking conclusions. This has led to me failing to have consistent fast associations at all, which is why the test didn’t work the first time. It means I am now still biased, and apparently also slightly slower on the uptake when race is concerned.
I guess being confused is better than being consistently wrong though.
And that leads to the promised furthering of the legal analog. There are crimes for which you’ll be punished even if you never intended to commit them.
An example is manslaughter: the crime of causing another human beings’ death, without intent to do so. Which includes situations as a mother not taking proper care of a baby, which inadvertably led to the baby’s death, or a drunk driver hitting someone on the street.
While both people did not mean to do harm, they did it by not taking actions to avoid doing harm. The drunk driver should have taken a taxi, and the failure to do so fulfills the function of “mens rea” in these cases.
It is similar with being racist, sexist or bigoted, one has no guilt of it as long as one is unaware. However, once one has realized they are make thinking errors, one should aim to rectify it.
And you might justifiably say: “Why? Why do we care what people think, as long as they don’t act upon it?”
I don’t mean to say that we should instigate a thought police, or that we should actively try to find and eliminate those who think racist/sexist thoughts. I simply aim to suggest that we might try to improve ourselves by eliminating thinking errors.
Having said that, why should you take time out of your busy schedule to change the way you think? I have a couple of reasons, starting from the selfish to the selfless and back again:
- It will make you happier
- It will make you a better person
- It will help others become happier & better persons
- You will be happier in a world of happier of better persons
That probably requires some more explanation.
Sexist, racist and other bigoted ideas are negative stereotypes of subsets of people. These stereotypes in general make you expect negative and/or dangerous behavior from these groups. If you subconsciously believe these negative stereotypes you will perceive the world as more dangerous and filled with more negative aspects. This is detrimental for your happiness.
By decreasing the stereotypes you have, you will fill feel no fear when you come upon a young man of a stereotyped ethnicity. Since that fear was in all likelihood baseless in the first place, and therefore needless negative stimuli, your live will be better without it.
(I say “in all likelihood” because there are some murderous individuals in every subgroup, including those subgroups which are suffering under stereotypes. Either way, the likelihood of some stereotyped individual having killer intent roughly equals the odds of non-stereotyped individuals.)
Now that you surely believe you will be happier, let’s discuss why it makes it you a better person.
Your thinking will change your behavior. If you subconsciously feel women can’t drive, you might compliment a woman on how well she parked, because you were surprised by that. You are more likely, as a shopping clerk, to keep track of a customer of an age, gender and ethnicity you feel is more likely to steal, while ignoring the tottering old lady who is slipping stuff into her stroller. This behavior clearly is a bit bigoted, and you might even experience backlash for it. That will feel unfair, because it was not intentional behavior at all. And because of the previously mentioned mechanisms you will secretly believe your assumptions were correct.
Your behavior will affect others, not just if you are openly demonstrated what your underlying assumptions are. We continuously express our opinions very subtly with clear effects on those around us, as De Correspondent shows in this article: https://decorrespondent.nl/5292/waarom-theedrinken-met-terroristen-niet-slap-maar-juist-moedig-en-slim-is/1540733968620-478722a3
Two experiments are used to illustrate this point. Firstly, a scientist labelled one cage of rats “stupid” and the other “highly trained,” and asked his assistants to have them run through a labyrinth throughout the week. There was in reality (obviously) no difference between the two cages. Yet, the “stupid rats” performed far worse, taking a longer time to leave the maze.
Now rats can’t read, so they didn’t know they were supposed to be stupid rats. Yet, something about these circumstances changed their behavior. The leading theory? The assistants could read, and they had obtained this notion of stupidity, which changed their behavior. As scientist they were, of course, trying to maintain objective comparability, so it is unlikely that they actually did anything overt. The changes were far more subtle, such as the roughness with which they picked the rats up.
An interested school director wrote the original scientist and asked him to do a similar test at their school. They came in, “tested” all students, and labeled a random selection of them with “hidden potential”. At the end of the school year those who had been labeled as “hidden potentials” turned out to have on average a 27 point higher IQ than at the beginning. The effect was biggest on boys of Mexican descent, a group of children that the relevant teachers expected least off at that school.
Setting aside the moral objections I have to testing the effect of social recognition and high expectations on developing minds, how was this effect caused? To answer that question, studies set up cameras in school rooms and videotaped the interaction of the teacher with the children. They noticed small nonverbal ques of teachers that communicated their expectations. These were facial expressions that the teachers were often unconscious of making.
They also found that by showing these videos to the teachers they can learn to withhold such behavior, leading to improvements of their students’ school performance.
Now does that not sound a lot like the theory we read previously, of unwitting biases being discovered and corrected? The battle of fast thinking with slow?
Other people will become happier and better off if you learn to do the same. You will learn to more frequently display positive or neutral expectations, and as a result those around you will perform better. I see a very useful application for anyone who has a “lazy” teenager in/or around the house!
Finally, all what goes around comes around. You will be a happier person, expecting everyone to be nice and well-performing individuals. And in turn, due to the magic of self-fulfilling prophecies, no one will let you down.