You’ve heard me say it before, but it’s worth repeating—the brain is a prediction machine.
The brain’s primary purpose is to keep us alive—and the best way to stay alive is to predict things in our environment, avoid danger.
But research clearly shows this innate tendency of the brain can lead almost everyone to have frequent unconscious, automatic thoughts that erroneously overgeneralize lots of things in our environment.
In other words, our brains love to put things into neat and tidy categories. Life is more predictable that way, or so we believe. The product of millions of years of brain evolution.
But many situations in life—and most people—do not fit into clear-cut categories.
The research on implicit bias shows that people frequently look for ways that someone is either “like me, or not like me.” We do this in a rather binary way, only two choices.
In her wonderful book Welcoming the Unwelcome, author and Buddhist practitioner Pema Chodron teaches a valuable practice that can help us counteract this tendency we all have.
The practice is called, “Just Like Me.”
The Dalai Lama calls it, cultivating our common humanity.
Instead of indulging our judgmental ego that loves to label things and compare ourselves to others, we can actively work against this tendency by searching for common humanity with others.
Just like me, this person wants to avoid pain.
Just like me, this person wants to be understood.
Just like me, this person has baggage from their childhood.
Just like me, this person wants to provide for their family.
Just like me, this person loses their cool sometimes.
Just like me, this person wants to be happy.
Great spiritual teachers have made observations about human nature long before the science came along.
Jesus recognized this when he inquired “how can you say to your brother to remove the speck from his eye when you have not removed the beam from your own eye, that is not visible to you?” (Luke 6:42)
Or, in the famous story of the religious leaders who were going to stone the woman to death, “let the person without any faults be the first to throw a stone at her.” (John 8:7)
The brain loves to categorize, judge, or amplify the flaws of others, while minimizing our own. These represent the “lazy” tendencies of the brain to be more efficient with thinking, and also represent elements of self-centeredness intended for self protection.
A related concept that is well established in psychology research is the fundamental attribution error. This is the tendency people have to be more likely to blame others bad behavior on their character—while excusing our own behavior due to situational factors. (i.e. My coworker got angry because he is a jerk, but I got angry because I was sleep deprived).
So the next time you catch your mind categorizing or labeling someone reflexively, do this quick mental exercise by saying to yourself, “Just like me this person….” Find the common ground you share.
This is an incredible practice to cultivate more compassion and mindful self-awareness.
You can even practice this by sitting at a busy street corner watching people, imagining what you may share in common.
Lately, I’ve been doing this at my daughter’s school when I see other busy parents frantically dropping their children off.
I imagine those other parents having interrupted sleep from kids that woke up at night, those early morning battles to get them dressed, or brush their teeth, or eat breakfast, and then rushing off to a demanding job, while trying to pay all their bills.
One of my friends and neighbors is Muslim from Afghanistan. He recently told me that when he grew up, he walked through mine fields on his way to school. My knees went weak, and I almost cried when he told me this. He mentioned it casually.
I could see the look of pride in his eyes knowing that he is now raising his own children in such a safe community.
Although I don’t practice Islam and I have never been to Afghanistan—just like me—one of his deepest longings is to keep his children safe.
In closing, the Dalai Lama teaches that clinging to strong feelings of us and them is at the root of nearly every conflict, war, or lack of compassionate action to heal the problems of the world. Take some time this week to reflect on that.
Turn information into action
The great news is that we can use a few research supported psychological strategies (National Institute of Health) to help counteract our tendency toward bias and impulsive judgment.
These habits can lead to much healthier relationships, less conflict in all areas of life, and greater happiness and peace. Who wouldn’t want that?
- Develop greater self-awareness. The first step in solving a problem is recognizing there is a problem. Take the research seriously. Recognize your mental habit and start to catch your brain when it labels or judges reflexively. This will help you begin the new habit of interrupting automatic thoughts.
- Recognize the subjective nature of reality. What is the objective truth about the nature of life? Philosophers have been debating this for centuries. But what is clear is that the story we have in our head is rarely, if ever, the entire story. Therefore, recognize the fact that we all project a narrative onto life that (nearly always) only contains a portion of the truth. This narrative is the brains attempt to explain, and therefore predict, what might happen in the future.
- Take the other perspective. Actively try to imagine yourself in the other persons shoes. What must their world be like? How did they grow up? What emotional battles are they fighting?
- Search for common ground. This helps in any conflict, be it a difficult coworker, neighbor, in-law (or outlaw), spouse, or child. Instead of looking for how you don’t agree, really mine for some aspect of where you may want the same thing.
- Keep educating yourself. Continue learning and educating yourself about bias and the natural tendencies of the human brain, so you continue to grow in self-awareness, and compassion.
Have a great weekend!
Want more? Suggested Resources
- National Institute of Health website for combating implicit bias research
- Dalai Lama Cultivating Common Humanity
- Welcoming the Unwelcome by Pema Chodron
- The Scientific American Understanding Implicit Bias