Are we blind to our biases?

Implicit - imˈplisit/: implied though not plainly expressed, latent, underlying, unacknowledged, unexpressed

I was in my car at a red light intersection, the first in line, when I noticed an African American man crossing the street in front of my car. Instinctively, I clicked the lock button to lock all my doors. And I was dismayed at my automatic reaction. All my life, I’ve believed myself to be unbiased. I’ve always had many friends from diverse backgrounds. I played the piano at a black church when I attended Frostburg. Now, I felt terrible to think that I had some hidden bias.

Then a month after that incident, I was again sitting in my car at a red light intersection, the first in line. I noticed a man crossing the street in front of me. This time it was a Caucasian man. Again, with no thought, I automatically clicked the lock button to secure all my doors.

Both times, on some level, I felt threatened, but not by someone of a particular race. My feelings of vulnerability had to do with gender. As a lone female inside an unlocked car, I reacted to the presence of a male walking nearby.

I’ll have to admit that I felt relief, until recently when I was listening to a pod cast, The Mind is a Difference-Seeking Machine, an interview/conversation with Krista Tippett and social psychologist Mahzarin Banaji. She talked of blind spots regarding our biases and suggested an online test that people could take to check their bias blindness. With some trepidation, I went to the web site and began. It was an interesting test that worked with words and images, designed so participants could not easily tip the results.

My test results: Your data suggest no automatic preference between White people and Black people.

Of this, I am glad but I’m sure that I have some bias in other areas. If the people crossing the street had been women, I probably would not have rushed to lock the car doors. However, I wonder what else might tip my balance.

You can take the test here:


On Sharing

Someone suggested recently that I read Dave Egger’s novel, The Circle. I opened my iPad app where I can borrow books from my library and within a minute I had downloaded the borrowed book. The story is set in the not too distant future and its premise is what if—what if we consider social media today and imagine a logical extension for its path. This book does just that.

Having lived for nearly 72 years, I find it interesting to compare the past to the present and to imagine what lies ahead. Technology, for better or worse, has changed how we do things as well as our expectations. And social media leads these changes.

Social Media Yesterday

When I was growing up in the 40’s and 50’s, social media consisted of basic, low-tech possibilities. We had a three channel TV with rabbit ears, snail mail, dial-up limited call number phone and the families in our neighborhood. We were limited with our talk time on the phone since we shared the same number with the neighbor across the alley. With snail mail, I waited several weeks to receive a reply from my Japanese pen pal. If I wanted a library book, I had to leave my house, go to the library, and use a card catalog to look up its location. The librarian hand wrote the due date on a form pasted inside the book’s cover. Music was played on vinyls, 78 rpm, 33 rpm and then 45’s. To get answers to my questions, I could ask my parents or open our family encyclopedia or research at the library. It usually took a while to find answers. In those days, if you wanted to send a message fast, you sent a telegram which involved Morse code and going through the post office. You paid by the word. Perhaps this is similar to modern-day Twitter’s character limit.  If I wanted to hang out with my friends, I knocked on their door and we hung out on our porches or at church if there was a youth event going on there.

Social Media Now

Today I embrace how easy it is to communicate with friends and find quick answers to my questions. I no longer need to keep a dictionary on my bookshelf because I can more quickly look up words on line. And I can enlarge the definition on my screen rather than looking for a magnifier to read the small print in the dictionary. Speaking of small print, I never use a phone book any more either because there are better and faster ways of finding contact information. I like the ability to use my iPhone to navigate when traveling and to let friends know if a traffic jam will make me late for our lunch together. Digital books help with house clutter and free up space in my environment. If while I’m reading on my iPad, I come across a word I don’t know, merely pressing my finger down on the word will call up the definition. I am a septuagenarian who loves the convenience and speed of today’s technology but…

Instant gratification

We now have instant access to a phone, email and social media but the downside is that we are becoming less patient and more impulsive. The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project a study about the dangers of hyper-connected lives on people under the age of 35: “Negative effects include a need for instant gratification and loss of patience.” Not only does this expectation of instant gratification rob us of the beauty of subtlety and deny would-be pleasures, but it can also be dangerous. I experienced this danger in road rage when a young driver, impatiently waiting in a line of five cars waiting to pull out into rush-our traffic, suddenly and violently screeched into the oncoming lane and pulled into the intersection into on-coming cars. Lucky that other cars stopped as that driver was venting.

In classrooms today, teachers are challenged with student use of cell phones, students who constantly text because they refuse to delay a conversation while in the classroom. Their distraction pulls them away in the classroom as well as when they are hanging out with friends. Educators are teaching students who have grown up expecting instant gratification. Students expect this in the learning process too, as if the push of a send button might send the new knowledge into their brains. As a lifelong learner, I wish this were true but I understand the turtle pace that can be part of learning. It is sometimes tedious, sometimes painfully frustrating, but the reward at the other end is great. Today when students encounter learning that does not satisfy their instant gratification craving, their disappointment often results in giving up.

Communication Today

When the compact flip cell phone was becoming popular, my immediate reaction was that I didn’t want one. I did not want people having immediate access to me. I did not always want to be connected. Of course, I could always not answer my phone, but there was the nagging ring or buzz. I have an iPhone today and find useful for good immediate gratification: I’m in a traffic jam and will be late for dinner; my car broke down; what did you want me to pick up at the store; Google tells me those weird things in the fruit section are cherimoyas and that I should not eat the seeds but the rest is delicious…maybe I’ll buy one.

Smart phone on the fly is useful but it has invaded our time and its ubiquitous presence can be destructive and even ominous. To use some apps, you must give location permission. You can use Find My Friends to locate where family and friends are at any moment. Good for parents, bad for teens who don’t want their parents knowing where they are.

People expect us to be at their beck and call. Yesterday I was chastised twice online for not responding or posting fast enough. Yes, I am guilty—by choice. One person told me that I was wrong to post on Facebook something so late into a conversation that had begun two hours before my post. I reminded him that I do not live on Facebook. A young person sent me a chat message that he expected me to respond to immediately. Two days later, when I had not responded to the “hi” message, he told me that if I didn’t want to talk with him, I should unfriend him. I tried to explain that I have a life and that I respond to chat messages in my own time. (I also discovered Facebook was open constantly and that I had chat turned on all the time so it appeared that I was online 24/7.)


These days, sharing is the vibe. As a child, I learned that sharing is good but today it has become insidious. There is Pinterest, Google, Twitter, Linked-In, Instagram, Facebook and much, much more. Facebook alone tells me in a few minutes that:  Jean Howard mentioned me, Sam Wilson updated his status, four of my friends have birthdays, someone has responded to my post, three people have shared my post, nine people want to be my friend, seventeen people want me to like a page, three more want me to follow them, eleven people have sent FB messages, four people want me to take a survey and then share with others, etc. It is good to be connected but too much of anything can be bad. If I’m connected to my nearly 700 Facebook friends all day, then I am swallowed, my remaining life is swallowed by the stranglehold of connecting and sharing.

Photographer Stephen Wilkes puts it succinctly: The act of sharing has become more important than the experience itself.

A conversation 16 years ago about what we lose with technology:

More reading:

Subtle Loss?

How does technology change the way we behave and understand?
(This is a conversation from 2000 between two graduate students in a communications class, — Jonathan and me.)


I’ve been thinking (this always gets me into trouble!) that technology and the emphasis on quick and direct communication may have contributed to what I see as a loss of subtlety in our lives. Just what is “subtle”?
subtle /ˈsədl/:
1. delicate, elusive; difficult to understand or distinguish
2. perceptive, refined; having or marked by keen insight and ability to penetrate deeply and thoroughly
3. highly skillful; expert
4. operating insidiously
I’m looking at the second definition.

On the one hand, it can be comfortable to have everything boldly and concretely communicated, leaving no doubt in one’s mind. On the other hand, when everything is accepted at face value, there is a loss of open-endedness that is a pathway to creative solutions. Have we become better communicators or cowards?

Technology has encouraged speed, quantity, clarity and convenience and this focus has tipped the balance in our lives.

In making some of the following points, I realize the concepts could be expanded much more. These are some areas I see that have been affected by the priorities encouraged by technology:

1. Education

Discipline  — A teacher used to be able to raise an eyebrow to squelch disruptive students. Now with music videos visually displaying the words to songs and tv/video/digital games technology using graphic information as a standard element of communication, nothing is left to the imagination. The subtle gestures don’t work but the in-your-face “shut up” makes its point.

Imagination  — When I was teaching and gave an assignment dealing with questions and musings that students might have, their response was empty and confused. A large number just didn’t wonder about things or imagine what could be. If one doesn’t imagine, then so many possibilities are never even raised. Creativity is withering as we neglect to water our imaginations.

Patience  — As we’ve become used to our instant gratification society, we’ve forgotten how to be patient. Indeed, we’ve forgotten the by-products of patience, one of which is artistic fine-tuning and subtleties.

Thinking  — Critical thinking skills require elastic thinking. If one is not used to working within a subtle life context, then the thinking becomes rigid and limited.

Literature  — At one time, a reader used to look forward to the joy of exploring all the subtle nuances in the language of the plot and characters. Today’s readers (the few that exist) become impatient with subtle language and demand clarity and a no-nonsense approach that leaves no questions behind.

2. Relationships/communication

We used to use body language to suggest and now we use body language to shout the message.
E-mail. Forget about the subtle introductions. Get right to the point and make it brief or it will be deleted with a quick tap of a finger. Is this desirable or undesirable?

Loss of empathy. To develop empathy, one must jump the concrete bookends and create new metaphorical “synapses”. In this case, it is the subtle which connects.

3. The marketplace

With more and more purchasing conducted within the digital realm, we look at the obvious qualities of the product without the advantage of the subtle elements that surface while tactilely dealing with textures and their resulting sounds

Shortsightedness of business ventures can result from the loss of subtlety that requires a symbolic kneading of the hidden layers.


Response from Jonathan:

I think your arguement suffers from over-generalization. Reading novels and textbooks about the digital age, we tend to forget that each writer is forced to “make a point” with his book, to put forward a general point of view about the situation, and most do so on too little information.
Sadly, such is the case with your well-thought-out “subtlety” arguement.

First of all, you say that the new technology emphasizes “quick and direct communication” and, later, that it “has encouraged speed, quantity, clarity and convenience”.

I have not yet been convinced that this is the case. If you are discussing a movement from telephone to e-mail, from stores to virtual stores, then I would say that the latter media encourage careful thought more than the former.

Today we write e-mail knowing that it can be archived for all time (case in point, this correspondence!) and we shop, as you say, conveniently in our own homes. Obviously, e-mail is a more careful (thus subtle) medium than the telephone. Although virtual shopping robs us of the chance to feel the object, which is a loss of subtlety, it also frees us of our annoying spouse who wants to leave.

On Education:
I am hardly an expert but… aren’t the points you raised the same that were raised 20 years ago about the rise of the “television generation”?

On Interpersonal Communication:
It is hard to believe that any new technology has made us less empathic. Perhaps you would like to blame the move to the cities, the loss of respect for our elders, etc. etc., but without any specific technology named, this is hard to believe.

By e-mail do you mean “cold calling” or e-mail between friends? I don’t think a new venue for communication changes the character of the people communicating. People do, over e-mail, all the things they did before over the telephone and by snail mail:

Chat, argue, (almost) scream, joke, emote, write formal letters, send job proposals, etc. etc…
In fact, one might say that the thought required to imbue our emotional subtext into a written message (when I send a friend an email with emotes in it) forces us to do in words what we used to do with a few grunts over the wire. Perhaps the advent of e-mail is making our culture more literary, rather than less.

The Marketplace:

I mentioned virtual shops above. As I said, they have advantages and disadvantages.

What does this mean:

“Short-sightedness of business ventures can result from the loss of subtlety which requires a symbolic kneading of the hidden layers.” Sadly, I think I missed a part of the arguement to which that was the conclusion. If we state as given a loss of subtlety, I’m not sure which aspect of business requires your “kneading.” Short-sightedness is bad, but again, inspecific.

Look, I’m not flaming you, Bonnie.

You gave an honest opinion, and obviously took a lot of time to put it together.

I’m just calling for more careful thought, definitions, and examples of technologies and their effects.

Anyway, this was my two cents…


My response to Jonathan:


* Your two cents goes far! A good response. Yes, I was aware that I had thrown out some over-generalizations.

* Actually there’s another argument on your side that more subtlety might sometimes exist in the realm of technology. Consider the insidious use of cookies and the vast amounts of information that can be reaped from clicking habits of Internet travelers. In this sense (the 4th definition of “subtle” that I included in the original posting), “subtle” can be negative.

* I’m not sure that e-mail requires more careful thought. How many people really consider the possible archival permanence of their e-mails?

* Don’t forget that television IS part of the technology movement. There IS a difference in attitudes within the education world. I began teaching in 1967. After several career changes, I returned to teaching. There is a big difference not only in behavior but also in the ability of students to focus on any one thing for a reasonable amount of time.

Yes, television has influenced much. Look at the local TV news. Time how long they remain on a particular subject. Obviously, it’s not long enough to go into much depth at all. They have no faith in the ability of the public to go beyond the surface. Clock how long, on any show, the camera angle remains in any one position. Will the viewer lose interest if the shots remain too long the same?

And consider the drive of the male species to gain and remain in control of the remote control. The remote control allows him to run, not walk, through all the selections. Does he remain on one channel? Rarely. So, yes, the technology of television has trained us to expect quick shots.

And that includes those in the classroom. Today students in general are unable to focus in an environment requiring more than a quick shot. And parents are looking a quick fixes for this problem. Just two days ago, when I called a parent about her son who was being disruptive, she asked me if I thought he needed to be medicated.

* (What does this mean: “Short-sightedness of business ventures can result from the loss of subtlety which requires a symbolic kneading of the hidden layers.”) To tell you the truth, I don’t remember. I think it has something to do with a phone call which hijacked my thoughts.

* If you think technology has not made us less empathetic, then do you believe the opposite — that technology helps us to become more empathetic? If so, in what ways?

* I’m not sure the advent of e-mail is making us more literary. E-mails are making poor writing the norm. For example, in spite of spell-checkers (which can’t differentiate between “your” and “you’re”), conventional spelling will quickly become a thing of the past. Spelling shortcuts and errors have resulted in many people seeing the incorrect spelling of words more frequently than the correct spelling. Merely through frequency of usage, correct spelling is now going by the wayside.

* Remember that the telephone is also part of technology. Go back further to the time when letter writing or personal contact was used much more for communication. (I date back to when my family phone had a “party” connection and we had limited calls.) There is more opportunity for subtlety in letters. Besides the words and their connotations, there were also the subtle nuances in the handwriting itself. You could tell how hurried the writer was by its style, as well as how angry s/he was, etc. Add to that the stationery used. You could argue that with ever-increasing sophistication in e-mail programs that some of the same possibilities exist with the use of font style and color. But e-mail has yet to devise some way to reproduce the tactile sense.

* Emoticons. That’s just it! “Subtle intelligence”, one intelligence that Gardner of the multiple intelligences trend has not yet discovered, involves reading between the lines, understanding both the denotative and connotative implications of words, and understanding how the juxtaposition of phrases evokes certain understandings. In the E-world, why is it considered necessary to use emoticons? We never used to do it in traditional letter writing. Is it because we assume people lack the desire to delve into the subtle aspects of the message or do we lack confidence in their ability? Maybe we lack the time to do this and the emoticons merely make the message more understandable.

* Consider this analogy with driving, riding a motorcycle or bicycle and walking. The car, a technology I would not want to do without, takes us from point A to point B. What do we see in between? The world whizzing by. On a motorcycle (I sold mine) you feel the subtle temperature differences as you go through dips and crests in the road. You smell the honeysuckle and taste the bugs between your teeth. Ride a bicycle and add the element of feeling your muscles connect with your journey and hearing the concert of the cicadas. Walk and you see the tiny subtle elements, a camouflaged crab spider feasting on a bee in a yellow marigold. You can even become part of the natural cycle by offering your flesh to some ravenous mosquitoes. (Now why did I feel an urge to add an emoticon?) Is one mode of transportation better than the other? It depends on your destination and timeline. It depends on whether the destination is most important or the journey. It depends on what you want to experience.

Don’t get me wrong. I joyfully embrace technology and its promise of exciting possibilities. We just need to maintain a cultural perspective and not allow ourselves to lose perspective. I think what I’m trying to say is that we need to understand what is happening to us. We need to preserve our choices so that we don’t lose the ability to delve into the subtle layers. We must maintain a balance between the literal and figurative. By becoming solely a literal society, we risk losing our poetry.

New thoughts in 2016 on technology:

(Note: This conversation took place in the early 2000’s. Much more could be added to the argument based on technology changes that have evolved since then. For example: What do we lose in texting? What do we lose by allowing the Kindle to replace traditional books?)

Before the Ceiling Broke

My mother holding me 24 years after women were guaranteed the right to vote.
My mother holds me in front of our row house. Girls in the 1940's grew up in a society with gender bias.
I was born twenty-four years after the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified, granting women the right to vote. To witness a woman nominated today for the top position in our country, in our world, is amazing. It has taken a long time to get to this place. My world as a female has gradually changed over the years.

Some of my personal memories reveal this:

* As a little girl, I grew up playing the Old Maid card game. It wasn’t merely a game but was a reflection on attitudes at that time. For their birthday and other holidays, little girls were given gifts for their hope chest, real silver place settings — spoons, knives, forks — with patterns these little girls had chosen for their future marriage. Hope chest was an appropriate name because if they didn’t marry, they would be old maids, and every little girl hoped that would not be her fate.

* When I was ten, I announced that I wanted to be a doctor — a brain surgeon. As a result, my parents had a serious talk with me about how girls didn’t grow up to become doctors. They suggested that I might want to be a nurse or a teacher. They probably wanted their daughter to choose something that would be attainable.

* Often when girls asked serious questions, they heard this answer, “Don’t worry your pretty little head about it.” This was usually followed with a paternalistic pat on the head.

* When I turned 12, my mother said I was old enough to wear thin, three-inch heels and I was ecstatic. I didn’t understand that for this power of standing taller and exuding an attitude, women give up comfort, damage their knees, hurt leg and foot muscles, risk sciatica, strain the neck and cause bone damage.

* When and if they did marry, in the wedding ceremony fathers gave daughters away to their soon-to-be husbands. Although most fathers did not think of their daughters as chattel, that attitude persisted in tradition. I remember going to a wedding and hearing the bride repeat that she would “honor and obey” her husband. I waited for the same words from the groom but they never came.

* Women then, and many today, gave up their last names to take their husband’s. They also gave up their first names in formal address. When I was a teenager, many girls wrote their boyfriends’ names on their school notebook covers, Mr. & Mrs. John Jenkins — over and over.

* When I went to college, there were special rules for girls but not boys, curfews for girls but not boys. We had a dorm mother who was responsible for making sure we followed the rules checked off by our parents: can walk into town, can visit friends off campus, etc. Girls also had a dress code for eating in the dining hall — only skirts or dresses, no pants. This was a college in a cold mountain area.

* After I started teaching, I played with the idea of going into the photography profession. In one interview, the business owner told me that there were some jobs he wouldn’t send a woman to photograph. I seem to remember it was about going up in a cherry picker to take photos from high up. He didn’t know he was talking to a woman who would jump out of a plane a few years later.

* When I left teaching to open a camera shop with a partner, I remember a female customer standing in front of me, ignoring me and looking all around. When I asked if I could help her, she responded, “I was hoping the man would be here to help me with my camera problem.” I tried to communicate what she had just done as I returned her camera that I had fixed.

Different Attitudes Then

* When I was five years old, polls were asking: “Do you think married women whose husbands make enough to support them should or should not be allowed to hold jobs if they want to?” The results: Should be allowed 24%, Should not be allowed 60%, Depends 13%.” (Roper)

* When I was six, another poll asked: “Do you think a married woman who has no children under sixteen and whose husband makes enough to support her should or should not be allowed to take a job if she wants to? Answers: Should be allowed 39%, Should not be allowed 43%, Depends 16%” (Roper)

At that time, it was okay for women to head a school’s PTA or a local Red Cross chapter, but it was not okay for her to enter politics. A woman’s place was in the home and not in the workplace in the 40’s. In this country, during my lifetime, women have been seen as weak creatures who need to be taken care of. Political office was too brutal. “Don’t worry your pretty little head about it.” Because of a cultural division of labor, one’s gender predetermined one’s path in life.

Although it continues today, unequal pay for women who did jobs equal to men was especially prevalent. And, although it continues today, the rape culture was more of a problem then. Today, it is illegal for a husband to rape his wife but it was accepted years ago. Today we understand that rape has nothing to do with sex and everything to do with power.


When Obama was elected, I naively breathed a sigh of relief and truly believed that was the end of racial bias. It was a huge moment. My husband and I wanted to go a local bar to be in the middle of this exciting time in history. However, all we found was business as usual. Instead of watching the celebration on the bar TV, we found the usual chitchat and patrons playing video games. Silly me to expect anything different. Until I was nine years old, schools were segregated. Although some things have changed, we still have a long way to go.

Today I’m not so naïve. Yes, we have a presidential candidate who was born 27 years after woman were guaranteed the right to vote. She grew up in the same world I did and she’s running for the highest office. If a woman is elected president this year, I understand that it won’t be the end of female bias. But it would be a huge leap forward.

When there are no ceilings, the sky’s the limit. ~ Hillary Clinton, July 28, 2016 at the Democratic National Convention.

Mount Hope Cemetery: photo appears on City of Rochester, NY – Mayor’s Office Facebook page


For further reading...

Roper polls:

Women political leaders worldwide:
Despite years at attempts to pass the ERA (Equal Rights Amendment), the issue died in 1982.
Interesting different leadership styles:
“Gender is also thought to impact the decision-making process. Scholars contend that male and female officials have uniquely different behavioral patterns when approaching group decision-making (Kathlene 1994; Kennedy 2003; Hannagan and Larimer 2010). Research finds that female leadership styles are more democratic, cooperative and more likely to produce outcomes close to the median group preference. Male leadership styles, by contrast, favor a more autocratic approach, seeking competitive individual gains from group decision-making (Eagly and Johnson 1990; Rosenthal 2000; Hannagan and Larimer 2010”

Some gender expectations dictate public perception of women in politics.

“Hillary Clinton, poised to become the world’s most powerful woman, stands out for not subjecting herself to such painful footwear. She mostly wears flats or close-to flats while campaigning. (And I should add that Arianna Huffington, my boss, is a self-proclaimed ‘flat shoe advocate.)”