How Children Learn Biases

ABC Video

Viral video – Michael D. Cisneros

Please forgive my deception in the title, but I’ve done it to make a point as we begin this discussion. I will wager that as you read that title, you already have several ideas about the subject. I will also assert that you speculated about parenting, schooling, and policing. Finally, most of these thoughts are probably accompanied by strong feelings. My point is that all of those thoughts and feelings are biases. You have prejudged what I am about to share with you. That prejudice makes it harder for you to analyze the topic rationally.

To better understand my thesis, it is helpful to have a bit of background on how the brain works. In the footnotes are some sources for the science if you want to go deeper into the subject. But for now, I will give you a high-level summary.

One of the main functions of any animal with a complex brain is to predict what is going to happen next. If you watch a cat stalk its prey, you can see that they have to make assumptions about how the prey will react. Prey animals, on the other hand, must be able to predict instantly if a sound or movement in the environment signals danger.

The point here is that your previous assumptions about this subject are part of your brain’s hardwired predictive machine on which your survival depends. To layer into the discussion of biases, guilt, or shame misses the point. This is what brains simply do. How does this help us deal with biases that have a negative impact on our lives? To move this conversation into an example without any emotional baggage, I will share an example from my experience that may be illuminating.

I think I was in the second grade when the subject of astronomy was introduced as part of the curriculum. The lessons included the sizes of the planets and their distances from the sun. As an aside, the typical graphic of those depictions are grossly misleading and is an example of how education imparts incorrect information. But I digress.

The lessons also illustrated how the moon rotates around the earth. It was pointed out that the moon is tidally locked, that one side always points towards us, and the other is the “dark” side. A few poor-quality images were taken by the Soviets in 1959 and escaped my attention at the time. It wasn’t until 2009 that an orbiter did a systematic survey of its surface. It did not, at that time, caused me to wonder how they could take pictures of the supposed “dark” side.

It was only a few months ago when, as I lay not sleeping, that this anomaly struck my curiosity and I spent a while modeling the obit not just of the earth and moon, but also of both around the sun and it became clear how they got those pictures. I will leave it to you to repeat this thought problem.

Today, those in the subject of space sciences now use the term “far side” to talk about the moon, so this sort of misapprehension doesn’t arise. The whole point of my convoluted tale is that words matter. Calling the moon’s far side, the “dark” side set up in my mind an image that was false that I have carried for a lifetime. This insight has helped me see that such use of inaccurate words is pervasive in insidious. It can also be weaponized. This is the situation in which we find ourselves today.

fist copyTo bring this topic around to the contemporary issue of racism, I have, in my naivety, heard the slogan “Black Lives Matter,” as an assertion of civil rights with which I agree. It has only been as a result of the discussions surrounding George Floyd’s murder that I have come to understand a deeper meaning. Black lives matter not use to the black community, but they also matter very much to me. This conceptual and emotional reframing has led me to feel more deeply into why blacks in our society have been so demonized. I understand now the way my brain works allowed me to be misguided in my youth about the dark side of the moon, many of us are prejudiced by the way our society talks about and treats the “dark side” of our community.

It is more than time that we shine light on this subject. We have to realize that our brains are hardwired to predict and assume threats. And unless we do the work of investigating those, we will forever carry these mistaken “facts” forward to literally color our behavior.

Furthermore, this discussion should make it clear that what we say and do as parents, as teachers, and as a society has to be scrubbed of these prejudicial words and behaviors least we contaminate our children and perpetuate false biases for yet more generations.

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One thought on “How Children Learn Biases

  1. Hi Jay, good and “relevant” topic. We should put our heads together with Bob Mosby to advance our club conversation on this topic. Shaun is willing to be involved. While the tragedy ofGeorge Floyd is front and center, it’s deeply rooted in many areas. I’m guilty and it would be helpful to know how to unwind.


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