A Simple Deck of Cards

“What can a deck of cards tell us about ourselves?”

Picture an ordinary deck of cards. Suppose I asked you to sort the cards in two piles: hearts and diamonds on one side, spades and clubs on the other.  How long would that take you to sort the whole deck? For most people, the answer is about 20 seconds. It’s easy, isn’t it? Reds on one side, blacks on the other. Now, what if I made one small change to the task. Let’s sort the hearts and clubs on one side, diamonds and spades on the other. Now how long would it take you?  The average person, I’m told, will take about 40 seconds- twice as long.  Why is this?

The answer is in the way we think: Our brains are hard-wired to look for patterns. We group things together in our minds. Color is a powerful cue that our brains use to process the world around us. When we remove that cue, your brain takes an extra half-second to think about each card in order to sort them correctly.

Now, let’s replace the symbols of hearts etc. with photos of people and words like good/bad/ happy/sad. What if I asked you to sort through the pile again? This is what Harvard Psychology professor Mahzarin Banaji did when he developed a test for implicit bias. In general, people were quicker at the task when dark skin was sorted with negative words, and light skin with positive. Mahzarin’s simple test is still on the internet.  It’s been taken by literally millions of people. Guess what it shows? Implicit/ unconscious bias is so ingrained in our culture; it even shows up in people of color, gay and transgender, in all parts of the country and all walks of life. All of us have biases – as human beings – we group things together in our minds, we have certain “gut reactions”, certain patterns of thinking that go past conscious choice. Unconscious bias is not racism, but recognizing our own bias goes a long way in understanding the roots of prejudice and discrimination in our own society.

“When I look back, I want to be on the right side of history.”  This is a common catch-phrase these days.  We look back on past generations and say, “How could they think that?”  and “Why didn’t anyone do something?”  The answer is in examining how our brains work and how we think about other human beings.  Could a person be on the “wrong side” of history just because of when they were born, or where?

The civil rights movement of the 1960’s took on unconscious bias, and changed how people think about each other.  Martin Luther King Jr. shined a light on inequalities that were so ingrained in culture, most light-skinned people never really even questioned them. It’s not surprising that the first population where MLK’s ideas took root was on college campuses.  The younger we are, the less ingrained patterns of thinking have a hold on us. The Holocaust didn’t start with death camps and crematoriums.  It started with a subtle yet deliberate campaign to control how human beings see each other.  It started with news stories and speeches and propaganda that taught people to sort human beings the way you sort this deck of cards.

Perhaps the next shift in thinking is in how we see gender and sexuality.

Look at the old joke: A man and his son are in an accident.  The man dies, his son is rushed into surgery where the surgeon says, “I can’t operate on this patient.  He’s my son.” The joke asks, how can this be?  The answer, of course, is that the surgeon is the boy’s mother.  But many people have trouble coming to this conclusion because of old gender roles that are part of our culture.

In the coming weeks, we want to examine our own ingrained, unconscious biases and challenge ourselves to rise above them. Because the deck of cards and Mahzarin’s test only tell half the story.  What they can’t do is predict real life behavior. To quote a fictional character, “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” (JK Rowling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets) I hope you will make the choice to join us in this journey!

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