Bias - Nature or Nurture?

As I facilitate classes and talk to people about cross-cultural differences, it is inevitable that the concept of “bias” comes up. I often say that the word “bias” is not bad; biases are natural, and we all have them. It’s how we use our biases in response to a situation that matters. Do we automatically react negatively to certain situations and more positively to others? Or, do we have the self-awareness to understand our responses and adjust them accordingly?

For a long time, I believed biases were learned – more nurture than nature. However, I recently learned about some studies that are causing me to question that belief.

At Yale University’s Infant Cognition Center, studies are being conducted to test in-group and out-group dynamics. A puppet play is done, and the baby chooses one puppet over another – indicating a preference that “this puppet is like me.” Then, another puppet play is done – and this is where things get interesting. Overwhelmingly, babies like good things to happen to the puppets “like me” and bad things to happen to the puppets “unlike me,” indicating a preference for “those who are in my group.”

Watching the study made me question whether biases are learned or built-in. If infants as young as 5 months old like bad things to happen to puppets that aren’t like them, what does that mean for how ingrained our biases are? Maybe that helps explain why it’s so hard for us to let go of them – because we are born with the beginnings of them, and they are shaped and reinforced over many years by our family and friends.

 

© 2017, Susan McCuistion