The unconscious bias question

Published on: 1 July 2018

Imagine that you are the designated welcomer in church. Today, there is a newcomer: tall, well dressed, and confident. How do you respond?

Another week, another newcomer: this time unkempt, smelly, eyes not meeting yours. Try to imagine what you would feel and how you would respond. If you are honest with yourself, working on initial reactions, what are the differences between your two welcomes? Even if you fight against your initial reactions and your welcome is identical in both situations, what do such instincts do to us and to those around us?

Recently, a group involved in the discernment of new clergy and reader vocations spent half a day learning about unconscious bias — the way that we can show bias towards some people over others, without reason or intention.

This training day put me in mind of the book I’m reading, Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. Kahneman received a Nobel Prize for economics for his lifetime’s work researching our biases, shortcuts, rules of thumb and the mistakes these can lead to. He concludes that we all employ ‘fast thinking’ and ‘slow thinking’.

Fast Thinking

Fast thinking is all the stuff you do automatically – walking, talking, reading and 2+2. This is our normal mode of being – moment-to-moment we make hundreds of decisions automatically, without really having to ‘think’. This is our preferred way of working.

Fast thinking serves us well most of the time but doesn’t always work. Kahneman showed how readily we misjudge probabilities, character, even maths problems. For example, he asked Harvard students “if a bat and ball costs £1.10 and the bat costs £1 more than the ball, how much does the ball cost?” More than half missed the correct answer (5p), too readily trusting their intuitive, fast thinking.

Slow Thinking

Slow thinking is the conscious, deliberate thinking of learning and problem-solving. It’s hard work and we try to cut corners on it.

Indeed, we can function so effectively because we have an armoury of shortcuts and rules of thumb. Meeting someone who matches our image of untrustworthiness we tend to react according to our learnt pattern, even though ‘slow’ thinking might question that bias. Our brains are machines for jumping to conclusions.

The Dilemma

This matters hugely to economists but is also pertinent to the church. For so long church leadership has been the preserve of white, middle-class, middle-aged men and this has shaped our image of what it takes to be a reader, priest, or bishop – which goes a long way to explaining how we unconsciously fall into discrimination. “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do,” says Paul in Romans 7. What Paul says is true for all of us, and the decisions we make.

So, what can we do with this new-found awareness? If we acknowledge that we jump to conclusions, we begin questioning ourselves and each other, and sharpening our reason. As we grow in discipleship we are able to transform our behaviour: our ‘fast’ thinking becomes more Christ-like. Knowing our biases and fighting them, we can change not only ourselves, but also our churches and our world, for good.

Further reading: Daniel Kahneman: Thinking, Fast and Slow, Penguin, 2012.

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