Friday, December 5, 2014

Wildly inaccurate

    "You are wildly inaccurate with your self-evaluation."  So begins Mary Hynes' interview with scholar/blogger/author David McRaney.*  Ms. Hynes was not accusing Mr. McRaney of anything, but, rather, summarizing some of his work . . . which, of course they discuss over the course of the interview.  The first part of the interview focuses on our common tendency to, and benefits of, self-delusion.  McRaney even argues that "People who are brutally honest with themselves are not as happy day-to-day as people with unrealistic assumptions about their abilities."  
       I listened to this interview earlier this week.  And my listening to it was done in the midst of the news of the two grand jury decisions NOT to indict police officers in the deaths of two black men.  In addition I was also a member of a committee planning a division-wide workshop focusing on our implicit biases (the topic had been chosen prior to the Ferguson decision).  Questions, therefore, of bias, prejudice, self-awareness -- all of these have been swirling about me for several weeks.
      As part of the workshop, I (and the rest of the division) was asked to take Harvard's Implicit Association Test.  This survey examines our automatic (i.e., unconscious) reactions/attitudes about a whole range of subjects, from sex/gender to race to weight to Harry Potter vs. Lord of the Rings.  In the midst of all of the tension and protests following the Ferguson decision, I decided to take the "race" test.  The results were not what I'd hoped; my automatic reactions favored European Americans over African Americans.  I took little solace in learning that I'm not unusual in any sense -- that most Americans, 
regardless of race/ethnicity, who take the test show the same "automatic" response.  This isn't good news.
       Most of us, however, would not want to admit that these are our attitudes -- even if they are unconscious.  And, those who work on the Implicit Association Test generally point out that implicit bias (in terms of race) does not mean racism.  Yet, in general,
  we would confirm Mr. McRaney's conclusion:  we are wildly inaccurate with our self-evaluation.  And I think he would agree that this is one place where there are very few benefits to this self-delusion.  Our attitudes (unexamined or not) result in actions we may not wish to own.
       There does, however, seem to be some good news.  Later in the interview, McRaney addresses the question "Which comes first, attitude or behavior?".  After some discussion, he summarizes recent research:  changing one's behavior leads to changed attitudes.  That is, if one causes harm, hate will follow.  The opposite is also true -- good news for us -- if one acts compassionately, care will follow.   The imperative, as he quotes his father, "Act your way to right thinking."
        Our better natures, those commended to us by our various religious traditions, would have us exercise compassion, hospitality and justice to all people.  Perhaps, as we move through the tragic events of the last several weeks and months, and the protests and demonstrations that have followed, we can actively change our behaviors--our actions--and, thereby, change some of our attitudes so that "automatic" actions are just, caring and compassionate.  What a great holiday gift to give our culture.



* Mary Hynes hosts the Canadian Broadcasting System's show "Tapestry".  The interview mentioned here can be found in this episode:  The interview with Mr. McRaney begins about halfway through the show.

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