On the Brink of The “I” (Or, How Hyper-Sensitivity About Unconscious Bias Kneecaps Conscientiousness)

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Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink provides an anecdotal account of how split-second decisions are made through a process Gladwell calls “rapid cognition” or “thin-slicing.

Gladwell (who is half-black… shout-out!) distinguishes this type of rapid cognition from intuition, which he claims is more emotional. He feels as though rapid cognition is a distinctly rational process, a type of thinking that moves a little faster than ordinary conscious and deliberate decision-making. (Thanks for the quick-summary fodder, Everyday Thomist!)

In Blink, Gladwell describes his experience taking the Implicit Association Test (IAT). A similar project was undertaken by Harvard, one in which I participated online many years ago. Gladwell and I, having similar racial makeup and a tendency to think of ourselves as accepting, were similarly surprised and a bit ashamed at our respective biases. That stuff is really hammered in…

Tests such as the IAT measure a person’s attitude on an unconscious level, as well as the immediate and automatic associations made before that person has time to think.   Gladwell uses two terms to explain this theme:

  • Rapid cognition is, by definition, prejudicial: it consists of making assessments of other people without all the evidence—in short, “judging a book by its cover,” or making decisions in the BLINK of an eye.
  • Thin-slicing is a term used in psychology and philosophy to describe a person’s ability to find patterns in events based only on “thin slices”, or narrow windows, of experience.

With all the hoopla about bias, diversity, and inclusion going on these days, you can imagine how scary tests like those can be.

Imagine that: being afraid of your own unconscious mind.

How dare thou not havest thoughts in perfect harmony with current PC conditions??! (she said, feigning outrage, in a medieval British accent)

But that’s exactly what the hypersensitivity surrounding unconscious bias & its friends has created. Starbucks made the poor decision to have “anti-bias training”… well, the poor decision was, actually, to call it that. But… que sera sera…

The problem isn’t unconscious bias; its un-realizing nature precludes blame. Plus, we all have biases.

What is blame-able, though, is what comes after those initial, uncontrollable thoughts occur. The next level—conscious thought, which becomes action—can make all the difference between coming to an understanding and a big-ass lawsuit, between legitimate force and police brutality, between being prejudiced and everyone knowing you’re prejudiced.

It all hinges on the moment right after the thoughts that happen in the blink of an eye, when you stand on the brink of the “I”, on the edge of who you are and who you want to be.

What we are conditioned to think is hard to change, but we can train our minds to act differently beyond those unconscious machinations. This helps avoid unpleasant outcomes.

We are lucky that, in most instances, we don’t have to react in a split second… our interactions with others afford us the time to think, to stay in touch with our ideals, and to act in accordance with our better angels.

The “I” of you is not your physical body or your mind; those are simply instruments which the “I” uses to carry out its purposes. It determines what they shall do and how they shall act. It is much more connected to your spiritual power, the source of the real power which comes to us when we realize our true nature.

How deep you allow yourself to go when you make the determination of Who am I? What is my true nature? is up to you. Are you the labels you’ve been given, the labels you’ve chosen, or are you led by your spirit?

Who you decide to be—your “I”—is entirely up to you.