Implicit Bias, Meet The Dominant Narrative

Ever since I took the implicit bias tests provided by Harvard, not a day passes which doesn’t reveal to me some new vein of perspective I need to change. The simple act of recognizing that I have biases has made me increasingly more aware of my own and other’s biases. I see it in flippant 140 character responses, I witness it in conference talks and blog posts, and I still hear it in my own voice even as the words emerge from my mouth. I’ve spent a good amount of time trying to figure out what I can do to change myself. I’m not looking for sympathy, but it is not easy to shift attitudes that are so deeply rooted in one’s upbringing.

I recently read a thought posted by Seth Godin about The Dominant Narrative and was struck by the realization that these two ideas are intimately intertwined. The dominant narrative is the story we believe to be true about a person, an organization, a race, a gender. It causes us to interpret the data we perceive about that individual or group as support for our belief and results in us ignoring the data which contradicts our belief. Dominant narratives are formed over time and are often a result of our biases. The thing is, changing the dominant narrative is really hard, no matter which side of it you’re on.

Perhaps you made some poor decisions when you were younger, significantly disappointing your parents who (maybe) had very high hopes for all that you’d achieve. Now, you’re on your feet and finding your way, but the series of “failures” from your past haunts your relationship with your parents. You don’t feel that you can ever do enough to prove that you are beyond those mistakes. In this scenario, you are stuck in the dominant narrative your parents believe about you. A long string of small successes is not enough to break that narrative, because any little slip is fuel supporting their perception.

Or maybe you have a coworker who isn’t cutting it. You see the mistakes they make that others in the office seem to ignore. And, they never seem to help out with the little things. Even when they do, it seems like they’re just doing the absolute minimum to avoid being called out. This scenario is flipped—your coworker is stuck in the dominant narrative you believe about them.

I see dominant narratives as an extension of pattern recognition. As humans, we need the ability to quickly identify patterns in wildly varying data. One classic example is how we perceive a chair. Imagine how difficult life would be if you needed to learn about every possible form a chair could take in order to trust that any form you encounter would hold your weight. Instead, we recognize the pattern of a chair and know instantly how to classify objects which take that form. It’s the recognition of patterns, specifically behavioral patterns, that also helps us form opinions about others around us. And these often lead to the formation of a dominant narrative.

While pattern recognition is obviously something we must have in order to make sense of the insane amount of data we perceive daily, it can also get us into trouble. There’s a cognitive bias you and I share called clustering illusion. As you can probably guess from the name, this is our tendency to let our pattern recognizing brains go a little too far—we tend to see patterns where none truly exist. When it comes to relationships, this can cause some real problems.

What Is This Really About?

A quick recap:

  1. Out of necessity, humans are really good at detecting patterns (pattern recognition).

  2. Sometimes we’re a little too good (clustering illusion).

  3. Every single one of us has biases about others. (Go take the implicit bias tests if you think you’re excluded from this.)

  4. We all have a tendency to make a judgement and stick to it (dominant narrative).

So where does this leave us?

In our work on the Web, the technologies we use are seriously open. You wanna learn how to do this stuff? View source, baby. Pretty much everything I’ve learned has been a result of me just digging into the open code that makes up the Web. Because of this, our industry as a whole is more open than most. (I’m thinking of that time I tried to explain to my lawyer why I wanted Sparkbox to teach workshops that explained how we do what we do. He did not understand why I wanted to give away our “secret sauce.”) That openness means we share what we are learning, but it also means there are billions of person to person communications happening in the open. And let’s face it, not all of us are playing those interactions out in a respectful way.

Those who are following along with the conversations happening in the open are bound to see some pretty terrible examples of decent human interaction. Combine this with our ability to match patterns and our tendency to over-match patterns and we can have some pretty nasty dominant narratives start to take form.

The Ethics of the Web

I used to see the Web as a network built with HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. Now I see it as a network of people. As one of those participants, it’s your and my responsibility to behave in a way worthy of being replicated—because that’s what will happen. If we want to change the dominant narrative of negativity, we have to start to change the patterns that are present online. Those patterns are built from the smallest interactions across a myriad of platforms and tools. I believe it is our ethical duty to make this shift personal. It has to start with you, it has to start with me. The dominant narrative won’t change itself.

This post is part of The Shift, a writing project designed to help us produce and consume unique perspectives on topics relevant to the Web industry. Follow along with #startYourShift.