Living with Bias

Greetings Dear Ones!


The lady standing in front of the dressing room mirror is huffing, tutting, stamping her foot, and wiggling like a five-year-old who has to go potty.  She is mad because her dress does not fit her like it fits the model wearing it in the catalogue.  She ordered this dress on line and it is supposed to make her look Just Like That.  What the hell? Vexation emanates from her in billowing waves.  I study the dress. It is a long, bright fuchsia contraption which is made entirely on the bias.  What is bias, you say? Well, in sewing terms, the bias is the when you cut diagonally to the grain of the weave of the fabric.  The word “bias” comes to us via the Middle French word “biais” but originates from an older Greek word meaning “oblique.”  The fabric has been cut on an oblique angle.  Picture a grid: When cloth is woven, it is constructed on a loom whose strong warp threads run north to south.  The weft fibers are then woven in side to side, east to west and back.  When you cut the cloth north to south or east to west, it will not stretch as much as if you cut it on an angle. Any time you cut a curve into woven cloth, you will have to deal with some sort of bias issue—meaning that part of the hem will sag or those pieces of the pattern will not go together smoothly without some deft convincing.  There is a lot of “give” to one side rather than another which is jolly useful, mostly, but also causes a lot of problems.

 I start trying to explain this to the woman.  She has no idea what I am talking about.  She impatiently wants to know why this dress is pooching out over her navel in such an unflattering way. She thinks it is too big and I need to take it in. The opposite is true.  It’s too tight under her armpits and needs to be let out.  She won’t hear of it.  “But I’ve LOST WEIGHT,” she insists.  “This is NOT too small for me!”  No, it does not look too small, but just because she can get it on does not mean it “fits” her.  The way the entire front of the dress was cut in one piece, on an angle, means that it is going to behave in an oddly stretchy way when the normal forces of body physics are applied.  Biases aside, we cannot supersede the Natural Laws of physics!  When you pull this dress tight across the breasts, it creates a series of ever-enlarging ripples that end up looking like a pooch of “extra” fabric over the navel.

The lady’s attitude makes me realize I am dealing with more than fabric bias.  We have cognitive bias too! A cognitive bias is “a mistake in reasoning, evaluating, or remembering, often occurring as a result of holding onto one's preferences and beliefs regardless of contrary information.” This woman has seen the photo in the catalogue that shows a person wearing this dress looking sleek, elegant, svelte—approximately 5’9” and 120 pounds.  She is guilty of a heuristic bias. (The lady in the dressing room, that is, not the waif on the page)  Heuristics are simple, efficient rules humans tend to use to form judgments and decisions. They are mental shortcuts that streamline cognitive thinking (saving our energy for remembering where we hid the Halloween candy) that involve focusing on one aspect of a complex problem and ignoring others.  For example, this woman has not focused on the fact that she is neither 5’9,” nor 120 pounds.  She thinks “if I wear this, I will look just like that!”

While I am working with her, I discover a few more “bias” issues: Of the 25 most common cognitive biases, she has a mere 26.  First, there is the Intrinsic Bias—she “just knows” quite a lot.  She just knows how sewing works, even though she does not do it, and she just knows how fabric is supposed to work, even though she has never heard of a bias cut before. She also has Choice Supportive Bias.  She has chosen this dress; therefore it is the Right Choice. If she chose it, it must be right for her.  (This is why we often believe in who we vote for, rather than vote for who we believe in, especially if we have voted for someone based on the Bandwagon effect—which is when we just go along with what everyone else is doing so that we can belong to the majority.) Having chosen this dress, she backs it up with Confirmation Bias—that is, she will listen only to information she already knows.  She is not interested in facts that don’t support her current beliefs.  My attempts to get her to recognize other truths are met with Ostrich Bias—this is her subconscious decision to ignore negative information such as “this may not be the dress for you.”  She bats that away like a gnat at a summer barbeque.  She wants only to know when I will fix her dress, not how or if.  Negatives do not apply to her.  She is never told “No.” (Ostrich bias is the foundation of all ignorance.) So I trick her with a Placebo bias: she tells me to take the dress in and I don’t.  She puts it on again and insists it fits “much better.”  I hem it to the length she wants and she is happy.  Outcome bias: after a decision has been made, she evaluates my performance solely on whether the end result was positive or not.  She will not consider the conditions under which we had to work to get this result; the result is all that matters.

 Today, on Election Day of all days, I am thinking about bias a lot.  Just like in sewing, where we flex and stretch along our bias points is where we will come together to create what fits us best.  Perhaps the most challenging bias facing any of us is not the one that makes our clothing look lumpy but the one that makes us guilty of Naïve Realism: The belief that we see reality as it really is – objectively and without bias; that the facts are plain for all to see; that rational people will agree with us; and that those who don't are either uninformed, lazy, irrational, or biased. Or the Bias Bias—the belief that other people have biases, not us.

We all have biases—we have been shaped by our choices, experiences, culture, and religions, which are beautiful things so long as we take them into account and recognize when they might be impeding our higher cognitive functioning and causing us to hurt others.   I think many of us have been shocked to discover the level of bias in our country. Our nation is suffering from a compassion deficit as a result of clinging to entrenched and flamboyant bias.  We can be passionate about our beliefs while still being moderate in our behavior towards one another. Moderation, like fabric cut on a bias, is often misunderstood. It’s not just finding the bland, neither-hot-nor-cold mid-point between two opposing poles.  Rather, it is based on an acceptance of the inevitability of conflict. It’s absolutely necessary when making something two-dimensional fit a three-dimensional body.

Understand that you are biased and that others are too.  We still have to come together, and it won’t be seamless, to fashion the fabric of our version of Democracy in the 21st century.   We can take all these divisions, rivalries, and competing factions and still make something coherent and lovely, like the patchwork quilt that is our country.  Sure, it won’t look perfect but the truth is we need each other.  We need Both sides.  We cannot make a dress with left sides only.  We cannot have coats with right sleeves only.  By exercising our rights to enforce moderation, we are not saying that we have to have all the answers today—merely that we are willing to work towards workable temporary arrangements that balance our needs for security with our desires for liberty.   In an organized society, we must have room for the disorganized.  In a healthy society, we must have room for the unhealthy.  There is no ultimate resolution to these tensions.  We have to expect that—we are all fabric cut on a bias, rather than the straight of the goods.  There is damn little in this world that is pure and straight and unyieldingly perfect.  Most of us have curves. Some would have us believe otherwise—that having faith means that one must not tolerate those with no faith, or differing faiths. We must not tolerate each others’ curves. 

There is an age-old trade-off between liberty and license.  Political cultures are traditions of conflict.  As author David Brooks says, “There are never-ending tensions that pit equality against achievement, centralization against decentralization, order and community against liberty and individualism.”

We have this fantasy that there is glory to be gained in struggling against “Others.”  But Character only comes when we struggle against ourselves, against our own weaknesses, judgments, and bias. Great matters are not settled by listening to only one voice, one opinion, or one point of view. 

It’s how we will come together, despite the rhetoric that seems so fashionable at the moment that ultimately will make us strong at the seams. Yes, we are blessed with the right of free expression, but what about our responsibilities to the freedom of expression? Let us speak with In-tention, not to get Attention or to create A Tension.  At the end of the day, regardless of how the polls go today, we can still be kind.  We can be gracious in victory and humble in defeat. None of us want to be hard-hearted or cruel but we sometimes operate from unconsciousness of our own biases. We blurt out things that are mean.  We listen to messages of hate and fear and we don’t stand up.  Today is our day to stand up, individually and collectively, and admit we really do have dappled souls but we will strive to do better.  We have optimism and Hope. Reality might not look quite like it was sold to us in the catalogues but it will be ok.

 Today of all days, don’t be a bystander.  Of all the sins we commit, let’s not let today’s be the sin of Omission. To paraphrase the poet Marguerite Wilkinson, let us not, commit the sin of “unattempted loveliness.”  Loveliness is waiting for us, where our biases come together and fit us just right.  

Be well, my dearies, and Vote!!!

Yours aye,