Everyone is Biased, Even You Have Bias

November 27, 2019 Kristance Harlow
Stylized image of museum display of human brain

Every perspective is naturally biased because of the cultural lens through which it is viewed. Using anthropology to lay the groundwork, we can better understand how everything we hold as true is biased, and that no one can truly be entirely subjective all the time.

Magical Thinking

In the late 1800s and early 1900s a scholar named Lucien Lévy-Bruhl from France was contributing to the foundation of modern day cultural studies (like sociology and anthropology). He likened the mystical thinking of symbolic based cultures to a psychotic-like behavior “governed by irrational fears…fantasy and…delusion” (Rogoff 2003). His ethnocentric approach did not allow him to understand their magical beliefs as reasonable.

To be ethnocentric is to see your own culture (ethno) as the benchmark and only right way of thinking, it is the center of all rational thought (centric). So, these cultures that Lévy-Bruhl was studying were categorized as having irrational and crazy fears. His lack of self-perception prevented him from seeing the world through the eyes of the culture he was trying to learn about.

E. E. Evans-Pritchard was a British anthropologist who lived from the early 1900s to 1973, and he actually got Lévy-Bruhl to admit that he made people sound much more irrational than they actually were and that he was portraying different cultures as ‘savages’. Taking a step forward from Lévy-Bruhl, Evans-Pritchard studied the Azande of North Central Africa. When a grain tower fell over and killed someone, the locals said it was witchcraft.

Evans-Pritchard sought out a more ‘rational’ explanation, he came to the conclusion that termites were to blame. The Azande people in the area said they knew about the termites already, but said it was witchcraft that made the tower fall on the man at the exact moment he was standing there. Evans-Pritchard could see that they understood the mechanics of a fallen tower, only they had another explanation than he did for why that particularly man was killed at that particular time in that particular way.

My brother is an avid Red Sox fan, he knows all the statistics and watches all the games. When he was twelve, he found an old camouflaged hat, he wore it while watching the first game of the season, and the Sox won. After that he wore it every game that year, convinced that if he didn’t it would jinx the games. When they won the World Series, he quietly gave some credit to his hat wearing habits. Western rational thought would say that his hat had no bearing on the outcome of the game. Interpretations of my brother’s behavior depend on who views him and how they do so.

Gender and Bias

Magical thinking is a great place to point out biases because we all talk about “this religion” “that falsehood” “this creation truth” “that creation myth” but gender also presents a very important bias obstacle. This is not meant to be an in depth explanation of gender bias, but I’m hoping you will see how you perceive gender is not fact, it is cultural. Gender is not fixed, it is not inherent, it is something that people are socialized into, and different cultures have different gender ideals and norms.

Margaret Mead, a famous and influential American anthropologist in the 1960s and ’70s wrote about cultures with strikingly different gender behaviors than Western society. In the Arapesh population of Papua New Guinea, the women were not interested in child-rearing and aggression was displayed by everyone and not a particular gender. Mead’s study of the Chambri (Tchambuli) people, also of Papua New Guinea, is a great example of different gender roles. The men were disorganized and concerned with their looks and gossiping. The women provided for the family by fishing and gardening and being responsible caretakers.

At first glance, some would classify the males as feminine and the females as masculine, but even that categorization cannot be done without first saying, “This understanding of feminine and masculine is my own cultural perception of those things, let’s see how they think about the world before I classify them into my own worldview.” Classifications are cultural, not universal.

Derek Freeman, a New Zealand anthropologist, is well known for criticizing Margaret Mead’s work in Samoa. In doing so he created the perfect example of being someone lacking self-perspective. He pointed out that Mead may have seen only what she wanted and said her feminist theories slanted her data. She may have wanted to believe that teenager were loving and that parents encouraged sexual freedom, so she then found this in her studies.

Freeman came to the opposite conclusion when he studied in Samoa years after Mead had, while he could point out Mead’s bias, he could not point out his own bias. They both failed to see the cultural barrier they were banging their heads against and continued to try and force a sterile, non-biased approach. If both of them had recognized that a non-biased study is not possible, they may have seen some very different results.

Early Musings on Bias

In general, early scientific thought and academic thought, including anthropology followed a tradition of exclusion that did not allow for real consideration of ideas that could not be explained ‘rationally.’ Anything outside of the rational were noted as being markedly different. While trying to be objective anthropologists observed and analyzed cultures, but they did not note the inherent bias of the academic.

The academic is first and foremost a human, brought up in a specific socioeconomic cultural experience (meaning the way they were brought up was specific to their situation in a variety of ways from personal experiences to the type of school they attended to their economic status) and their life perspectives will without doubt affect the data they collect, it affects what sort of data is collected in the first place and how certain emotions or activities are characterized and categorized.

Should We Embrace Bias?

Culture plays a major role in constructing your personality. We bring ourselves to everything we do. Everything you experience and see and read and feel is filtered through your personal store of knowledge and understanding. Sometimes cultures will clash because they have different sets of values and different languages to express those values. Even knowledge and reasoning may be different between the two groups. When there is no shared culture and no shared language, a large gap is left, leaving a lot of space for misunderstanding.

If we would embrace our own biases we could approach discussions with less arrogance and a more open mind. Cultural facts are interpretations and not universal truths that all humans abide by. Exploring how these truths come to be is second to realizing that these truths are created and not inherent.

When trying to understand societal norms, it is helpful to look at cultures comparatively in order to understand how behaviors differ. It’s arguably more important to see all studies as innately subjective. If we don’t, we risk losing our critical thinking skills to the fallacy of objective knowledge. We should always ask questions and look for the whole story. To analyze anything, one must be willing to analyze within. If we could approach each other with the knowledge that our thoughts are constructs and not absolutes everyone could learn to seriously chill the hell out.

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