At the Vancouver satellite Women’s March on January 21, one of the speakers was Squamish artist and activist Khelsilem. He’d asked the organizers if a woman shouldn’t speak in his place, but they insisted his voice was valuable. So he took the opportunity to say that, as an Indigenous person, he was forced to see the world through the lens of racism every day; he referred to that view as “glasses” he couldn’t take off. But, as a man, he could choose whether to put on the glasses that women can’t take off. That choice is a privilege—one he tries to use to understand what women go through and to advocate for them. “And putting on those glasses takes work,” he said.

Most of us like to believe that we’re objective and make well-reasoned decisions. That’s why it can feel like such an affront to be told to “check your privilege” or “check your bias.”  Not only do those commands challenge our world view, but consciously checking our bias takes mental effort. Unconscious biases happen automatically, taking place through what Daniel Kahneman calls System 1 thinking, which is effortless and intuitive. We all have biases we’re not aware of, regardless of our education level. (And we are all sexist, racist, ageist, ableist to varying degrees.) Challenging those biases takes slow, deliberate System 2 thinking, burning up valuable glucose.

The mental burden of consciously re-examining our beliefs—of using up energy resources to an uncertain end—may be why we’re so averse to cognitive dissonance that we tend to stick to our views even when presented with facts that contradict them. It’s mentally much less burdensome just to keep believing what we believe.

Unfortunately, our biases can have real-world consequences, especially when we make decisions that affect other individuals or groups and stereotypes get in the way of reasoned thinking. Once we are aware of our susceptibility to bias, we can use techniques like

  • stereotype replacement: consciously replacing a stereotype you hold with more accurate information,
  • positive counterstereotyping: picturing someone who does not fit the stereotype filling the stereotyped role,
  • perspective taking: putting yourself in the shoes of a member of the stereotyped group, and
  • individuation: using specific characteristics of an individual to prevent assumptions arising from a stereotype

…among many others (depending on the situation) to debias our thinking.

These all take conscious mental effort—they are, in essence, a type of emotional labour—but, with enough practice, we can develop schemata to make the process less onerous over time.