When jumping to conclusions leads to unconscious bias

Don’t judge a book by its cover, assumption is the mother of all F ups, it’s just the tip of the iceberg. So many phrases we frequently use but rarely manage to adhere to that all amount to the same thing; advice to look beneath the surface. Because what we see on the outside rarely reflects what someone is experiencing on the inside.

One factor that contributes to stigma around mental health is that, culturally, we have a tendency to view it in a binary way: healthy or ill. But mental wellbeing is like many other kinds of physical health in that it can be subtle and not always easy to categorize. You could struggle with your mental health without having a specific diagnosed condition. And if you do have a diagnosis, that shouldn’t equate to a label of damage and define you as a whole. Minds and emotions are complex things that don’t easily fit into one-size-fits-all criteria.

Emotional wellbeing is affected by so many things — stress, loneliness, hormones, over-work, emotional trauma, anxiety, expectations, physical health. The impact of these can be profound yet we don’t always give credence to the everyday niggles that contribute to our state of mind, even though their effects are very tangible. According to Healthline,1 prolonged stress can increase risk of stroke or heart attack, contribute to the onset of type 2 diabetes, and weaken our immune system making us more vulnerable to viruses. Not something we want during the age of COVID. Despite its very real symptoms, we diminish stress as a normal part of modern life as though that somehow lessens its effect on our health.

PMS (premenstrual syndrome) is another under-recognized cause for mental suffering. NHS figures show that women menstruate for an average of 39 years of their life. Given that around half the world’s population is female and a significant proportion suffer with PMS, it is surprising that it is not more readily supported as a credible mental health condition. PMS and PMDD (premenstrual dysphoric disorder) can invoke rage to the point of violence, depression to the point of suicide, and hopelessness that can be all-consuming. Yet those who deal with it often feel embarrassed to admit it, fuelled by a lack of social empathy and awareness of how real the symptoms are. And ignorance is not only a gender issue. Women can be just as susceptible to judging other women, particularly if they don’t suffer to a similar extent but perceive themselves to be in the same menstrual boat. So many times our snap judgements get compounded into beliefs because we think we have insight into something that we don’t. We believe we know. But actually, we just think.

There are infinite factors that can affect emotional wellbeing. It is human to make split-second assessments of people, situations, and intentions based on the evidence we have in front of us. If someone doesn’t respond to our efforts to contact them, we might assume they don’t care or aren’t interested. We’ve all had the ‘they’re online but aren’t bothering to read my text’ moment. Okay, sometimes if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck…it’s a duck. But more often than not, the other person is simply busy or dealing with some challenge of their own. Almost as if their life doesn’t revolve around us. Wait….. what?

The presumption stems from our own inner world and not their reality. Our thoughts might be driven by loneliness, insecurity, or anxiety. When the other person’s response doesn’t match our need, our minds convince us of their feelings or intentions. But this kind of projection can cause all sorts of miscommunication and unnecessary hurt.

We make micro-judgements every day in hundreds of tiny ways. It’s our brain’s job to decode the masses of information it receives and make sense of it. It does this every second that we are awake, taking input and turning it into thoughts and beliefs. ‘The sky is blue’, ‘I like this taste’, ‘fire is dangerous’. Judgement arises when we simply accept those subjective interpretations as hard facts. Someone takes an odd tone of voice so we assume they don’t like us. Someone behaves or reacts differently to what we are used to, so we label them as weird. Someone seems aloof so we decide they are rude. Someone doesn’t join in so we deduce that they are anti-social. But what if the odd tone was disguising nervousness? What if the unusual behaviour stems from being on the spectrum? What if the aloof person doesn’t know how to connect to others? What if the person not joining in is painfully shy?

While our brains do a wonderful job of computing infinite amounts of raw data, it is our responsibility to check that data. We don’t always have to accept the resulting thoughts as facts. It is emotionally intelligent to challenge our unconscious assumptions and stop to consider what might be going on under the surface of a situation or behaviour. With increasing focus on tackling widespread unconscious bias, we need only apply the same logic to more subtle areas and become aware of our own thinking. Because if we take responsibility for challenging our thoughts, we can deter ourselves from developing biased beliefs.

And it’s not only about being kind to others, it also helps us. We are just as prone to judging ourselves. How many times has your confidence been knocked because someone rejected you or made an unkind remark? Do you hold yourself back in your career because you believe you lack professional worth? Do you stay in a relationship that is wrong for you because you think it’s the only one available?

Beginning to correct the inner beliefs that hold us back or lead to us judging others, starts with understanding that beliefs and facts are not the same thing. Think of something you ‘know’ to be true about yourself. Then pause. Do you know, or do you just believe? Can it be proven? Is it measurable? Where does that belief come from? Did it start because of something someone said or something you have absorbed from other people? Would people you know argue the point?

With practice, we can learn to become more mindful of our own thinking and evolve our beliefs into something healthier and happier for everyone. Because whatever we think and whatever we see on the surface, there is way more to know hiding underneath.

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