Our Sixth Sense is Making Us Racist and Sexist

Our intuitions have just as much impact as our conscious biases.

Photo by Kal Visuals on Unsplash

Midwives have a special intuition. They know when a baby will start crowning, but can’t explain exactly how they knew it. My sister explained this to me. She finished her training and became a midwife last year, and is still in awe of her peers who have been there for years. “It’s like they have a sixth sense,” she says. The same thing happens when art experts can instantly recognise a fake or fire-fighters suddenly sense they need to get out of a burning building. This instant judgement is the very foundation of speed-dating, and of love at first sight.

Humans have this intuition which feels like a mystical extra-sensory perception, but in reality, is the result of observations and decisions we make on an unconscious level. Our brain works like a computer, taking into account many factors that we’re not even aware of perceiving, and drawing a conclusion. It’s like how when your phone rings, sometimes, you just know who it will be before picking up. It’s funny because nowadays, some cellphones put on the homepage the most likely actions you’ll do at a certain time — text your lover, phone your Mom, calculated according to your habits, the time of day and day of the week. We do exactly the same thing, without knowing it, when we sense who is calling us.

Psychologists call this the “adaptive unconscious,” and it is a very powerful thing. It would be impossible to make all our decisions in a rational, calculated way. We simply wouldn’t survive. We need a quicker way to make choices, like, for instance, jumping out of the way of oncoming traffic. As Malcolm Gladwell, who wrote the book Blink, on this very topic, argues:

“The only way human beings could ever have survived as a species for as long as we have is that we’ve developed another kind of decision-making apparatus that’s capable of making very quick judgements based on very little information.”

He compares it to functioning on autopilot, or being a giant computer, quickly and quietly processing all the data we need. Which may sound less magical than a six-sense or an intuition, but really, it is just as impressive. Especially since, Gladwell shows, such snap-judgements are often very reliable. Surprisingly because our society has come to assume that the quality of a decision is related to the time and effort that went into making it. But that simply isn’t always the case — some decisions fall apart when you try to explain them, even though your unconscious had good reason to make it.

But the way our unconscious makes these snap decisions doesn’t come from nowhere — it is the product of our experiences and our environment. So when you have racist and sexist messages everywhere you go, in the media, in advertisements, in everyday interactions, they will feed into your intuition — making your sixth sense a good deal more racist and sexist than many of us would like.

Many studies by scientists studying the “adaptative unconscious” have revealed the biases that shape our intuitions. One of the most interesting is Implicit Association Tests. You can take some example tests online here: it is really interesting to do, and reveals, for istance, how most Americans struggle to associate positive things with black people. Something which on a conscious level seems mind-blowing, but is a constant in the results of such studies.

“The kind of biases we’re talking about here aren’t so obvious that it’s easy to identify a solution. If there’s a law on the books that says black people can’t drink at the same water fountains as white people, the obvious solution is to change the law. But unconscious discrimination is a little bit trickier. (…) If something is happening outside of awareness, how on earth do you fix it?”

— Malcom Gladwell, Blink

Luckily, he says it is possible to change the way our minds make their first impressions. Just because something is outside of awareness doesn’t mean it is outside of control. He says that studies show that those who looked at pictures of Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela before doing the IAT tests found it easier to associate positive things with black people.

Gladwell gives advise to white people who would like to treat black people as equal, and change the associations they may have bubbling up from under the surface:

“It requires that you change your life so that you are exposed to minorities on a regular basis and become comfortable with them and familiar with the best of their culture, so that when you want to meet, hire, date, or talk with a member of a minority, you aren’t betrayed by your hesitation and discomfort.”

It is really all about the messages we are exposed to, constantly, in our daily lives.

The good side of this is that we are able to change. The bad side is that, however much we like to think of ourselves as not sexist or not racist, our snap judgements will undermine that, until we make a conscious effort to mould our subconscious.

We need to take our rapid cognition seriously — we may not be aware of it, but it shapes our society and feeds into oppression.

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